In the future, the power of magnetism will be harnessed to make today’s high explosives seem feeble, “guided bullets” will put the current crop of snipers to shame, and new multi-purpose missiles will strike targets in a flash from high-flying drones. At least, that’s part of the Pentagon’s battlefield vision of tomorrow’s tomorrow.
Ordinarily, planning for the future is not a U.S. government forte. A mere glance at the national debt, now around $14 trillion and climbing, or two recent studies showing how China’s green technology investments have outpaced U.S. efforts should drive home that fact. But one government agency is always forward-looking, the Department of Defense’s blue skies research branch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Born in the wake of an American panic over the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, DARPA set to work keeping the Pentagon ahead of potential adversaries on the technology front. It counts the Internet and the Global Positioning System among its triumphs, and psychic spying and a mechanical elephant designed for use in the jungles of Southeast Asia among its many failures. It also boasts a long legacy when it comes to creating and enhancing lethal technologies, including M-16 rifles, Predator drones, stealth fighters, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and B-52 bombers, which have been employed in conflicts across the globe.
Today, DARPA is carrying on that more than half-century-old tradition through a host of programs designed with war, death, and destruction in mind. Wielding a budget of about $3 billion a year and investing heavily in futuristic weaponry and other military technology, it is undoubtedly helping to fuel the arms races of 2020 and 2030. While the United States seems content to let China sprint ahead in green technology, a number of its future weapons appear to be designed with a country like China in mind.
All of its planning is, however, shrouded in remarkable secrecy. Make inquiries about any of the weapons systems it’s exploring and a barrage of excuses for telling you next to nothing pour forth — a program is between managers, or classified, or only now in the process of awarding its contracts. DARPA spokespeople and project managers even prefer not to clarify or explain publicly available information. Still, it’s possible to offer a sketch of some of the future weaponry the Pentagon has in development, and in the process glimpse what messages it’s sending to other nations around the world.
Mayhem Without the “Y”
Even in military culture, where arcane, clunky, or sometimes witty acronyms are a dime a dozen, DARPA projects stand out. Sometimes it almost seems as if like the agency comes up with a particularly bad-ass name first and then creates a weapons system to suit. Take as an example the Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition or — wait for it — MAHEM.
This program, run out of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, seeks to “demonstrate compressed magnetic flux generator (CMFG)-driven magneto hydrodynamically formed metal jets and self-forging penetrators (SFP) with significantly improved performance over explosively formed jets (EFJ) and fragments,” according to the agency’s website.
If you’re scratching your head about what that could mean, don’t ask DARPA. When I inquired about the basics of how the weapon would function, a simple lay definition for the folks paying for this wonder-weapon-to-be, spokesman Richard Spearman insisted that “sensitivities” prevented him from giving me any further information.
As near as can be told, though, you should imagine an anti-tank round with a powerful magnetic field. Upon impact, it will utilize magnetic force to ram a jet of molten metal into the target. Theoretically, this will pack more punch that today’s high-explosive-propelled projectiles and lead, according to DARPA, to “increased lethality precision.”
Hasta La Vista, Baby
In the 2003 science-fiction sequel Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, or T3, a metal monster from the future, a Terminatrix, is sent back to alter the present in order to ensure a future where machines rule the world and humans face extinction. Today, DARPA, the Air Force, and a couple defense industry heavyweights are seeking to change the future of munitions with a monster of their own — “a high speed, long-range missile that can engage air, cruise missile, and air defense targets.” The name of the program? I kid you not: Triple Target Terminator (T3).
Designed to be fired by either manned aircraft or drones, the Triple Target Terminator seeks to “increase the number and variety of targets that could be destroyed on each sortie” by allowing an aircraft to engage in air-to-air combat or air-to-ground attack with the same armament. Just what future air force the U.S. military imagines itself attacking with this weapon is not the sort of thing you’ll find out from DARPA. Spokesperson Spearman told me that “sensitivities” again prevented him from explaining even the basics of the system or its future uses. “A good part of the program itself is classified,” he assured me.
Last fall, Defense Industry Daily reported that Raytheon had received a $21.3 million contract for the Triple Target Terminator (T3) program. This was followed, a few weeks later, by the same sum being awarded to Boeing for work on the project. These contracts constitute an initial one-year attempt to design a missile that meets “program objectives” and will set the stage for future efforts.
In a prepared statement provided to TomDispatch late last year, DARPA declared: “Depending on successful phase completion, follow on efforts will continue in two more phases with multiple-technology risk reduction demonstrations, including live fire from tactical aircraft. The program is structured to last three years, culminating in test demonstrations in 2013.”
Once upon a time, broadsides and boarding parties typified warfare on the high seas. In the future, the U.S. military has its sights set on something slightly more high tech. To that end, DARPA is now developing a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) that seeks to provide “a dramatic leap ahead in U.S. surface warfare capability.”
Designed to evade advanced enemy countermeasures, this would-be smart weapon is supposed to permit “high probability target identification in dense shipping environments, and precision aimpoint targeting for maximum lethality.” DARPA isn’t talking about this program either. LRASM, Spearman told me in December, was “in the final throes of getting all its contracts awarded. Until that happens and we have an official announcement, I can’t set up any media engagements on that one.”
By mid-January when I followed up, the final throes had yet to cease, but just days later DARPA awarded two contracts, totaling $218 million, to military-corporate powerhouse Lockheed Martin for work on two different LRASM missiles. “Lockheed Martin is proud to offer our technology for Navy solutions,” announced Lockheed’s tactical missile honcho Glenn Kuller. “These LRASM contracts will demonstrate two mature tactical missiles for new generation anti-surface warfare weapons capability; one low and stealthy, the other high and fast with moderate stealth.”
It’s the farthest thing from a fair fight. A man peers through an advanced telescopic sight. He zeros in on his prey, a figure without a sporting chance who has no idea that he’s being targeted for death. The sniper, who has lugged his 30 pound, .50 caliber rifle up a ridgeline in order to kill with a single shot, breathes slow and steady, focuses, waits, waits, and finally pulls the trigger. A breeze he never felt, somewhere in the 4,000 feet between him and his target, sends the round off course. The sniper doesn’t log another kill. The human target gets to live another day.
To the U.S. military, this is a terribly sad story, and so they’ve turned to DARPA to look for a happier ending — in this case via the Extreme Accuracy Tactical Ordnance, or EXACTO program which aims to allow “the sniper to prosecute moving targets even in high wind conditions, such as those commonly found in Afghanistan.”
The plan is for DARPA scientists to develop “the first ever guided small caliber bullet.” If you’ve ever watched a heat-seeking missile follow a fighter jet in a lame 1980s action flick (or the smart bullet from the 1984 Tom Selleck sci-fi disaster Runaway), then you get the idea. DARPA is focused on creating a maneuverable bullet (controlled by a guidance system) that moves with the target, adjusting in flight to slam into a human head and turn it into a red mist — thus writing an upbeat ending to tomorrow’s sniper stories.
When asked for further information in mid-December, Spearman told me that “the PM [project manager] for EXACTO is in the process of transitioning his replacement into DARPA, making neither of them available for interviews.” About a month later, the new project manager, he said, was still not up to speed and thus both officials remained unavailable for comment.
The New Blitz
As Nazi air power pounded London during World War II, England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill sheltered in an underground bunker to stay alive. Today, the leaders of other nations have bigger, stronger bomb shelters than Churchill’s and the U.S. military wants the means to destroy them without generating the negative press that using nuclear weapons might incur.
To bust those bunkers, DARPA’s Strategically Hardened Facility Defeat program is investigating nuke-free, earth-penetrating munitions to counter the “threat posed by our adversaries’ use of hard and deeply buried targets.” Specifically aimed at the “senior leaders, command and control functions, and weapons of mass destruction” employed by “‘rogue’ nations,” these powerful, high-impact weapons will be designed to tunnel deep into the earth before exploding.
Things That Don’t Go Boom in the Night
Not all DARPA projects are designed to kill people and destroy hard targets. Some are geared toward delivering men, materiel, and someday robots to do the job instead. Others are aimed at intrusive surveillance, cyber-war, or making silver-screen dreams come true.
One long-term focus of military futurists and DARPA scientists has been the “urban environment.” (Think: the billion or more poor and potentially rebellious people already living in the slum cities of our planet.) The Urban Ops Hopper program, for example, seeks to develop small robots or semi-autonomous land drones — unmanned ground vehicles or UGVs in mil-speak — that can “adapt to the urban environment in real-time and provide the delivery of small payloads to any point of the urban jungle while remaining lightweight [and] small to minimize the burden on the soldier.” And yes, they might even hop.
For many years, the Pentagon has dreamed of persistent surveillance of planetary hot spots, developing, for instance, drone technologies to serve as spies in the skies across the globe. In 2003, Noah Shachtman, writing for the Village Voice, profiled the military’s Combat Zones That See, or CTS program. The rationale for the effort was, he wrote, to “protect our troops in cities like Baghdad, where… fleeting attackers have been picking off American fighters in ones and twos.” However, he added, “[D]efense experts believe the surveillance effort has a second, more sinister, purpose: to keep entire cities under an omnipresent, unblinking eye.”
All these years later, Americans are still in Baghdad, still periodically under siege there, and still, in the case of DARPA, dreaming of snooping on whole cities. With an acronym that brings to mind over-priced polo shirts, preppies on tennis courts, and an angry little alligator, DARPA’s Large Area Coverage Optical Search-while-Track and Engage, or LACOSTE program is dedicated to achieving the dream of CTS: imaging technology that will allow for “single sensor day/night persistent tactical surveillance of all moving vehicles in a large urban battlefield.” Think of it as placing an entire city in a panopticon where the jailor has true omniscience.
Through its Gravity Anomaly for Tunnel Exposure, or GATE, program, DARPA is also developing technologies that could someday allow drones, flying overhead, to “see” below the Earth’s surface and identify areas with underground tunnels. And just this month, DARPA kicked off a new program called Mind’s Eye “aimed at developing a visual intelligence capability for unmanned systems.”
Partnering with defense giant General Dynamics, Roomba vacuum cleaner manufacturer iRobot, and long-time Pentagon contractor Toyon Research Corporation, as well as scientists from military-academic powerhouses like Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Southern California, the Pentagon is exploring the idea of creating robots with artificial intelligence that could roll ahead of infantry patrols, scan the scene, analyze it, and figure out what to do next. In other words, the quest to build a robotic point man will now join a long list of DARPA projects certain to inspire fears of a future straight out of the Terminator films.
In 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, secret agent James Bond’s Lotus Esprit sports car morphed into a mini-submarine. Never one to let an old silver-screen dream go to waste, DARPA is now attempting to one-up 007. Through its Submersible Aircraft program, the agency seeks to “combine the speed and range of an airborne platform with the stealth of an underwater vehicle by developing a vessel that can both fly and submerge.” Revolutionary it may be as a machine, but the reasons for creating it remain thoroughly predictable: the “insertion and extraction of expeditionary forces at greater ranges.” In other words, it’s meant to facilitate deploying forces overseas, perhaps for the next Iraq or Afghan War.
DARPA and the New Arms Race
Recently, some military experts went into mild hysterics over the unveiling of China’s first stealth fighter plane and word that the Chinese military was developing a “carrier killer” missile. Never mind that the jet is not unlike the F-22, a relatively useless fighter in the U.S. arsenal, and is still years away from production; never mind that the man who garnered headlines for the aircraft-carrier story, Admiral Robert Willard, the alarmist chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said intelligence indicated only “that the component parts of the anti-ship ballistic missile have been developed and tested.”
Still, advances like the proto-plane and not-yet-effective missile have made great hyperbolic copy for the military-corporate complex. Some pundits went so far as to suggest that U.S. military “weakness” in Asia was emboldening China.
From the Chinese point of view, it undoubtedly looks quite different. After all, the U.S. has all-but-encircled China with military bases, sites, and facilities — more than 100 in Japan, around 85 in South Korea, even a few in Central Asia — and has around 50,000 troops deployed to East Asia and the Pacific, and another 100,000 or more deployed in South Asia, as well as the largest Navy on the planet patrolling offshore waters.
As for the future, perhaps the Chinese don’t quite believe that DARPA’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile is meant to take out Somali pirates, or that the Triple Target Terminator is geared to counter the al-Qaeda air corps (which mainly seems to consist of ill-constructed bomb-laced underwear and explosive printer cartridges on commercial aircraft), or that the U.S. military plans to deploy Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munitions to fight off non-existent Taliban tanks.
Amid talk of a new arms race, the American people should know more about just what billions of their tax dollars are paying for and what message they’re sending to the world. With Beijing holding close to $1 trillion in U.S. debt, it’s unlikely that either country has actual military designs on the other. It’s far more likely that such DARPA projects (and pundit saber-rattling) will simply lead to needless expenditures on weapons designed for wars the U.S. won’t fight. In the end, if history is any guide, many of these weapons will become the overpriced means of killing lightly armed men, along with unarmed men, women, and children in one poverty-stricken country or another in the decades to come.
Unfortunately, Americans can’t begin to have an honest conversation about any of this until DARPA comes clean about exactly what billions of their tax dollars are being spent on — and why. Only then can the taxpayers begin to consider what message their future weapons plans are sending to the world and whether the U.S. really should be spending increasingly scarce dollars on making MAHEM.
Nick Turse is a historian, essayist, investigative journalist, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com, and currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). He is also the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. His website is NickTurse.com.
[Note: You can read more by Turse on the way American military analysts have gone all “Chicken Little” over the Chinese military at his Tumblr blog.]