Tom Abate / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-08-27 00:06:47
(August 26, 2007) — Envision an aircraft carrier in the sky. Drugs that can immediately prepare soldiers for duty at high altitudes. Prosthetic limbs with something approaching real sensitivity.
The Pentagon has.
For half a century, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — a low-profile but vital division of the Defense Department — has developed technologies to confound America’s foes and comfort its friends. The agency has been the force behind dozens of weapons, from the M-16 rifle and night-vision goggles to smart bombs and stealth aircraft.
Now, DARPA is planning for a long war in which US troops will be expected to face guerrilla adversaries. And just as during the Cold War, DARPA is counting on high-tech Silicon Valley to give US forces the edge.
“We need to anticipate all of the challenges and discover the technical means to conquer those challenges,” Anthony Tether, DARPA director, told more than 3,000 scientists, entrepreneurs and military leaders who gathered in Anaheim earlier this month for the agency’s 50th anniversary conference.
Best known for sponsoring the early research that led to the Internet, DARPA has long supported cutting-edge projects with civilian as well as military applications.
The agency is operating on a $3.1 billion budget, up 8 percent from fiscal 2006.
Virtually every Silicon Valley company, from the obvious candidates like Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space to who’d-a-thunk it outfits like Google, has been touched in some way by DARPA.
“Almost every great digital oak has a DARPA acorn at the bottom,” said futurist Paul Saffo.
During three days in Anaheim, DARPA and Pentagon officials made 60 presentations, painting a picture of a future in which the United States will have to spend $1 million on countermeasures for every dollar shelled out by bomb-building guerrillas like those US forces are encountering in Iraq.
“We are like a lion up against bees that are very effective whenever they swarm,” said Daniel Newman, a DARPA official involved in some of the agency’s most ambitious projects.
According to Marine Lt. Gen. James Amos, military planners are girding for 20 years of sporadic guerrilla wars fought in what he called an “arc of instability” circling the globe around the equator, with a detour into the Middle East.
Amos said this war will be driven by natural disasters and economic failures that force desperate migrations, or by ideological or religious grudges. And as has been the case in Iraq, these irregular forces will be unable to defeat the United States in pitched battles. “We haven’t lost a face-to-face battle in five years of fighting,” Amos said of Iraq, and so they will continue to rely on shadowy tactics like suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, who spoke at the DARPA conference via satellite, also predicted that the United States is much closer to the beginning of this long war than to its end.
Ideally, DARPA hopes to develop weapons that would allow the United States to one day patrol the “arc of instability” from a high altitude.
The aerial platforms in the early stages of development are designed not only to warn of threats, but to neutralize them by delivering what DARPA calls “ultra-precise effects” — smart bombs on steroids — that could be launched from anywhere in the continental United States, with minimal harm to distant civilians, according to Thomas Bussing, another DARPA leader.
“Think of an aircraft carrier in the sky,” Newman said.
Amos sketched out the most likely scenarios of how ground forces — war fighters in military parlance — would carry out missions: in 13-person squads, often commanded by a senior sergeant or junior officer, patrolling towns of 100,000 people with little or no way of distinguishing friend from foe.
Most of DARPA’s research projects are designed to support this scenario by giving these American teams the most complete and constant surveillance possible.
Imagine a hemisphere of awareness, dropped over a battlefield through a network of satellite and aerial platforms. Sensing and communication gizmos become the extended eyes and ears of those 13 troops on the ground. “When you’re on the battlefield,” Amos told his audience, “nothing is more frightening than being alone and not knowing where your buddies are.”
DARPA official Michael Callahan challenged university and industry scientists to help develop drugs that would, for instance, acclimate US troops to extreme environments like the high altitudes of Afghanistan, so they can hop off jets and jump into firefights. Amos also reminded the scientists and engineers that, today in Iraq, American troops are sweating under the weight of “60 to 70 pounds of body armor and ammunition” that makes it nearly impossible for them to react nimbly.
“We protect them to the point where they can’t do their business,” Amos said, urging the assembled brainiacs to invent body armor “that is a quarter-inch thick and about a quarter of what it weighs now.”
The whole idea, according to DARPA official Stephen Welby, is to “do everything in our power to keep our war fighters out of harm’s way.”
The emotional high point of the event came when Amos brought out a former Marine staff sergeant from Iraq who had been in a convoy bombed by IEDs that burned three-quarters of his body, blew off one hand and left the other dangling uselessly at his side. But the wounded soldier told the audience he counted himself lucky compared to his commanding officer, “a big man, about 6-foot-3,” who, he said, “had to be picked up by shovels.”
As the DARPA community rose to applaud the battle-scarred Marine, Amos cursed such deadly explosives and their builders. “They are the only weapon that they’ve been able to beat us with,” he said.
But DARPA’s high-tech dreams have their critics, who view its “visions” as boondoggles the nation can’t afford.
“I think it (DARPA) is basically a jobs program,” said Chalmers Johnson, a retired University of California political scientist and author who publishes under The American Empire Project label. Johnson’s latest book, “Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic,” argues that the United States has succumbed to a costly policy of militarism.
“Thanks to DARPA, we’re toying with bankruptcy in this country,” said Johnson, who believes that because the United States hopes to minimize casualties to its own troops, it has increasingly been adopting the costly high-tech approach to warfare outlined in Anaheim.
“Does this make the country more secure?” he asked, arguing the reverse: that just as the United States won the Cold War in part by using its superior economic muscle to outspend the Soviet Union in the arms race, America’s suicide-bomb adversaries are forcing this nation onto a spending trajectory it cannot sustain.
“We are now on the verge of duplicating the same collapse,” Johnson warned.
Deputy Secretary of Defense England acknowledged that no matter how smart the technology, it will never be able to stamp out the danger posed by guerrilla warfare.
“We spend billions of dollars to develop and procure innovative solutions … but at the end of the day, it’s still not possible for us to completely defeat these very basic technologies and approaches our adversaries are choosing,” England said. “And of course there’s a huge cost disadvantage, probably a million to one between our outlays and what an IED builder spends on readily available parts.”
Can the United States afford such lopsided bills? Not for long, according to military strategist Thomas Barnett, author of “The Pentagon’s New Map,” one of the treatises that lay out the scenario for these asymmetrical wars that planners expect.
“The million-to-one (ratio) is unsustainable,” Barnett said, although it’s difficult for him or anyone else to explain how the United States might be able to end its dependency on high-tech weapons that allow it to project power without putting US forces in harm’s way.
On the last day of the conference, this reporter caught up with Tether, the DARPA chief, and walked him back to his room to ask about Johnson’s warning that the United States could be spending itself into a Soviet-style collapse.
“It is a worry that they could, in a different way, do that to us,” Tether said. Then he stepped into his room and shut the door.
• To see video about DARPA, go to sfgate.com/blogs/tech.
DARPA at a glance
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was formed in 1958 after the Soviet launch of Sputnik sparked fears that the United States was falling behind in technology. Ever since, DARPA has funded novel research from space to computing to weapons to biology.
Some of the technologies DARPA has influenced:
Computer mouse, satellite navigation system, M-16 assault rifle
ARPANET (ancestor to the Internet), solid state lasers, microprocessor architectures, HAVE Blue (early stealth technology)
F-117 stealth fighter, advanced cruise missiles, durable cermet body armor
Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, affordable rapid prototyping tools, unmanned undersea vehicles
• 2000 to present
Phraselator (handheld electronic phrasebook), land-mine and improvised explosive device detection, robotic vehicle races
Source: DARPA, Chronicle research
E-mail Tom Abate at email@example.com.
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