The Past, Present, and Future of DARPA, Our Imagineers of War

USAF aircraft of the 4th Fighter Wing (F-16, F-15C and F-15E) fly over Kuwaiti oil fires, set by the retreating Iraqi army during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 © US Air Force

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is popularly envisioned as a hotbed of geeky creativity: the military’s answer to Google Labs, or Apple. It’s a reasonable enough assumption — inventing the internet scores a lot of geek cred, even for a government agency — but there’s a lot more to DARPA than robots and futuristic prosthetic devices, and not all of it is pretty. The truth is, according to Sharon Weinberger’s new book The Imagineers of War, this much-storied hub of innovation has seen plenty of failures.

For much of its nearly sixty-year history, DARPA has been an agency in search of a mission, and a producer of products that haven’t always been of immediate benefit to its Department of Defense customers. Part of this is by design: DARPA’s mix of maverick scientists, intelligence spooks, and policy wonks enjoy a degree of creative leeway and limited oversight that few in government employment do. The rest is due to the nature of war itself, which changes in ways that even DARPA can’t always anticipate.

DARPA was born in the dawn of the space age. The Soviets took the United States by surprise in 1958 with the launch of the Sputnik satellite, and a nation once assured of its own technological domination was forced to play catch-up. DARPA (or as it was known then, ARPA) was formed with a single mandate: Get an American satellite up as quickly as possible — preferably one superior to the Soviet’s steel-plated beach ball. Interagency squabbling eventually led to DARPA being relieved of its space mission, which was then placed in the hands of another new organization: a civilian one known as NASA.

In the late fifties and early sixties, the scope of military conflict was moving from battles between nations on the European continent to brushfire conflicts in the developing world. Small-scale insurgencies were surfacing in the wake of a wave of anti-American sentiment enveloping East Asia. DARPA turned its collective scientific mind to developing tools that would enable regimes friendly to the United States to defeat their enemies on their own rather than relying on American troops. Vietnam was their first testing ground, although certainly not its last.

Some of DARPA’s solutions were quite useful. South Vietnam’s soldiers were smaller statured than their American counterparts, making it difficult for them to handle the high-powered M-14 battle rifle that was then a standard weapon of the United States Army. DARPA saw to it that they were armed with the lightweight, low-recoil AR-15.

Other potential DARPA solutions weren’t practical at all, like hypnotizing hostile troops en masse, equipping special forces with jet packs, and moving the nation’s peasant farmers into walled “strategic hamlets” that were more like work camps than sanctuaries. Still others were downright horrifying: DARPA introduced the chemical defoliant known as “Agent Orange,” a carcinogen that would eventually sicken countless servicemen and civilians.

In any case, DARPA’s experiments in counterinsurgency were soon cut short. The brushfire war bloomed into a full inferno, with commensurate commitments of American lives and treasure. This was no longer the kind of battlefield where DARPA’s brand of lateral thinking could make much of a difference, although even then DARPA projects did occasionally find their way to the frontline, among them primitive surveillance and combat drones.

Back in the Western world, the arms race was heating up between the United States and the USSR. The Soviets were developing powerful intercontinental missiles capable of striking American targets within minutes of a successful launch. DARPA’s past as a counterinsurgency think tank was swept under the rug and the agency repurposed to discover a way to protect the nation from incoming Soviet missiles. President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of a missile defense shield later dubbed “Star Wars” — a system that in no way existed at the time — put DARPA under pressure to produce, and to do it quickly. Among the more far-out ideas floated by the agency was to create a missile-destroying atmospheric shield by exploding nuclear bombs far above the Earth. It was scrapped as impractical, thankfully, as was “Star Wars” itself.

Detecting underground nuclear tests by the Soviets was also tasked to DARPA. In response, the agency single-handedly revitalized the field of seismology, at the time a rather obscure endeavor of little interest to more than a handful of scientists. DARPA-funded seismological labs popped up around the world seemingly overnight, supplying both military and scientific data.

Another unforeseen innovation of the Cold War era was the ARPANET: a system of linked computers that would, in theory, allow the United States to respond quickly to an incoming nuclear missile attack and coordinate a unified response in moments. Thankfully, the ARPANET’s intended purpose was never put into place. Instead, it laid the foundation for today’s internet.

Just as it had in Vietnam, the nature of warfare changed once more, this time with the collapse of the Soviet Union. For decades, DARPA and the military had focused its efforts on a nuclear clash against the Soviets, only to be forced to adapt to a new foe: terrorism. This new enemy was hard to identify, operating in small groups sometimes separated by thousands of miles. Some even worked alone.

The answer was data collection, and for DARPA, it almost spelled the end of the agency. Finding a terrorist was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The best solution the agency could come up with was to look for patterns in data: phone calls, emails, and other bits of electronic information that they dubbed eDNA. Ideally, the agency hoped to develop a program to sift through this eDNA and make connections independent of a human operator.

In what must have been an inexplicable act of naiveté, the agency brought in John Poindexter — a key player in the Iran-Contra Affair — to run their new program. Poindexter, already a figure many considered to be less than trustworthy, chose the all-seeing eye in the pyramid as the project logo — a symbol reviled by conspiracy theorists who see it as a symbol of malevolent government oversight. To make things worse, DARPA’s then-manager, Tony Tether, chose to introduce this new program to the world during a public event at Disneyland.

Privacy advocates, the press, and even members of Congress revolted at a program that, if allowed to advance, would be an unparalleled invasion of privacy. The fact that it was being led by Poindexter made it seem even worse. The program was discontinued — at least under DARPA’s auspices. Information leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Eric Snowden revealed that something of it continued well after its ill-fated Disneyland Premiere.

These kinds of experiments in technology contributed to the image of DARPA as a gang of gadget-freaks like “Q” in the James Bond movie series, and while it may be truer now more than ever, the latest evolution in the way we wage war has seen the agency return to its counterinsurgency roots. American troops are once again committed to fighting an asymmetrical war against an enemy that is, at times, hard to tell apart from the civilians they terrorize. The solutions DARPA offer aren’t always perfect, but in a government known to strangle innovation with yards of red tape, the agency’s freewheeling creativity can occasionally reap unexpected rewards.