Scientist-Warrior Geeks: Turning Knowledge Into Power

July 25, 2017

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Sharon Weinberger, The Imagineers of War. The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

Since antiquity, philosophers have wondered if it is possible to eliminate war. Positive answers have often been inspired by utopian imaginaries, but great hope in mankind’s ability to curb violence has also been invested in science. The advent of nuclear weapons made total war strategically dubious and politically untenable. Thankful for the “nuclear blessing” that guaranteed “the long peace,” the political scientist Elspeth Rostow proposed that the A-bomb should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But what would Alfred Nobel himself have said of such a nomination? Perhaps he would have approved; after all, his invention of dynamite was driven, he claimed, by a commitment to “produce a substance or a machine of such frightful efficacy for wholesale devastation that wars should thereby become altogether impossible”.

Nobel seemingly expected to put an end to war through the deterrent effect of his explosive discovery. This proved dangerously delusory, reminiscent as it was of the earlier optimism of Richard Jordan Gatling, who believed his machine gun would “enable one man to do as much battle duty as hundred…and consequently exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished”. If the American Civil War cast disillusionment onto Gatling’s hope, World War I tragically killed it off. An awkward obituary portraying Nobel as a man “who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before” could well have been written for Gatling. When applied, knowledge often negates the very motives behind its pursuit. Such is the dialectical relationship between science and war, inextricably linked and overlapping as they are.

The two have in fact co-evolved, the one enabling the other. On the one hand, science offered novel instruments of violence — from swords, to nuclear weapons, to combat drones — as well as countermeasures for containing it — from shields, to antiballistic missiles, to anti-drone systems. The more closely bound science and warfare grew together, the more rational and instrumental the character of the latter became, burgeoning into successive “scientific regimes of war”. On the other hand, war powerfully catalyzed innovative thinking and dual-use technologies of military and civilian applications, like prosthetics and computers. This war-science convergence is not a zero-sum game but a complex civil-military synergy. It is, writes Everett Carl Dolman in Can Science End War?, “a back-and-forth union that has accelerated the pace of both knowledge and destruction for the last 500 years.” So, can the “first god of war,” as Napoleon called science, make war obsolete? The short answer is: “no.” But even if science was somehow capable of abolishing organized violence, this should not be expected soon, for as Christopher Coker persuasively argues in Can War Be Eliminated?, it has not yet reached the end of its evolution. And as an all-too-human social institution it remains an appealing means of settling conflicts.

The relationship between knowledge and politics is symbiotic, particularly in the national security domain. Not only does one inform the other but, in essence, as Michel Foucault famously remarked, “Knowledge is power, power is knowledge”. Echoing him, perhaps unwittingly, Dolman observes that, “Science has become war, and war become science.”

Knowledge creates capabilities that find defense applications, whereas the state commissions scientific solutions for its security problems, some of which spill over into commercial use. Scientists, therefore, empower politicians with state-of-the-art means, while governments facilitate research, thus shaping paths for possible technological futures. While for Margaret Wertheim science is always a “cultural project,” it is also, Foucault tells us, a political one.

As knowledge translated into techno-science can give a strategic edge, states foster innovation for national security, some through special research management policies and frameworks. In 2016, China announced its plan to create an agency that will direct military research and development. South Korea and Taiwan want to follow suit, and loud voices call for India to do the same. Russia and Japan have already launched initiatives of this kind. Is there anything these enterprises have in common except the aim of developing revolutionary technologies? Yes: They all seek to replicate DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the remarkable U.S. accelerator for groundbreaking innovations.

Sharon Weinberger’s new book, The Imagineers of War. The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World should be a must-read for all of the imitative creators of these new institutions, for they would learn from it that any efforts to clone the U.S. original are futile. What could be copied is the set — the general concept and goals. What cannot be replicated is the setting — the political, scientific, military, social, and normative environment. The latter, which has pivotally featured the U.S. agency, remains unique. The book’s great value is its informed and critical discussion of DARPA’s set-and-setting.

While science cannot avert war, it can ward off a strategic surprise, and that is precisely the aim originally set for ARPA (later re-named DARPA): to prevent another technological Pearl Harbor like Sputnik. But how? By creating innovations that would shock others.

Weinberger finely and exhaustively shows how turbulent and convoluted DARPA’s history has been. She deconstructs the image of the super-effective research agency endowed with a fixed mission, urging us to grasp how far from reality this popular representation is. First, ARPA’s establishment in 1958 wasn’t a planned long-term solution for the existential threat posed by the Soviets with the launch of Sputnik in October 1957. It wasn’t a well-designed institution invested with a clear-cut vision, but rather an interim measure.

Second, for much of its early history the agency had to struggle for survival and position within the defense establishment. After space programs were transferred to the newly created NASA and back to the services, it found itself searching for a raison d’être. In the 1960s came the focus on nuclear test detection, missile defense, and counterinsurgency. In the early 1970s the agency, now called DARPA, was turned into what it is today: a research lab for revolutionary technologies with which to secure American superiority on the future battlefield.

Overall, however, I would suggest that the tentativeness of DARPA’s existence — characterized as it has been by a continued quest for a mission — has been advantageous. By triggering the exploration of new areas and fostering imaginative thinking, DARPA’s struggles have guaranteed its vitality. Third, while it is true that internal tensions and competing visions of what the agency should be have, at times, impaired its performance, these have generally shaped its character, producing a unique way of running things.

This process involved three particularly acute dilemmas: First, should it be a science office focusing on national security, or a national security agency with a focus on science? Second, should the concepts it develops and supports be imaginatively far-fetched or pragmatic (too much of the former risked overinvesting in science fiction, too much of the latter would curb creativity)? And finally, how much should it engage in intelligence-like activities while trying to prevent itself from colliding with the CIA?

In the end, argues Weinberger,

[T]he agency that emerged bruised and battered from these battles was not a purposeful creation, as was often later claimed, but an accidental by-product of those rivalries.

She lucidly demonstrates the ways in which DARPA’s role changed over time in terms of its shifting focus on the core problems and the different visions pushed by its directors.

Weinberger’s is a vivid story, bringing in the historical characters — from defense secretaries to DARPA directors, from program managers to scientists. The main protagonist, William Godel, was the man whose work proved formative for the early ARPA. His life could easily be turned into a screenplay: an intelligence research expert for special assignments, a successful manager supervising ARPA’s Office of Foreign Developments, eventually sentenced to prison for the alleged fraud of the agency monies, which were, in fact, clandestinely used to finance covert activities in Vietnam. Melding the institutional history with biographical sketches, anecdotes, personalized narratives, and oral history makes The Imagineers of War all the more fascinating a read.

It is a three-level account, written “from above” (the agency’s place in the Pentagon’s institutional structure and its role in pushing for new military technologies), told “from below” (through the eyes and voices of the major actors who made the agency over the years), and reconstructed from inside (the inner dynamics and tensions, personal connections, and struggles). Weinberger not only dexterously balances these three dimensions (though the contribution of program managers is least explored), but does so in a smooth and interpretive journalistic style.

The thorough discussion of the big problems DARPA had to confront in the past — namely space programs, counterterrorism, nuclear warfare, and missile defense — leads Weinberger to her main thesis. Unlike previously, she claims, the present-day DARPA lacks clearly defined critical problems to solve, which not only hampers its mission but — and this is much worse — threatens it with irrelevance in matters of national security. Underlying this thesis is a deep sentiment of longing for DARPA’s glory days, drawn heavily from the reflections of its former directors, including Steve Lukasik. This pessimistic and alarming assessment should be read as a concern and recommendation based on a careful study of the agency’s past — a past marked by both breathtaking successes and total failures. Weinberger’s is a sharp thesis inviting discussion.

What, in this context, would be the big present-day problem? Counter-terrorism, the race with China, hybrid warfare, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemics, or zombie attack? Weinberger does not identify the main threat and, of course, it is the politicians who need to frame the critical assignments for the agency.

Yet my reading of DARPA’s performance in the 21st century suggests that one such overreaching problem is “the future soldier.” It concerns two domains animating the ongoing discourse on military transformation that are high on DARPA’s priority list. The first is biotechnological human enhancement, focused on improving the performance of servicemen and bestowing on them superhuman capabilities through pharmacology, neuroscience, and molecular biology. The second is advanced robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The two are imbricated. On the future battlefield, reconfigured fighters will partner with increasingly efficient autonomous machines. A grandiose vision of the future warrior refocuses research and development, from building revolutionary high-tech weapons to recreating soldiers so that they better fit to these technologies.

Has, as Weinberger contends, the agency’s role in the knowledge-power nexus truly deteriorated? Or, is it the case that in the post-Cold War era — in which, as the former CIA director James Woolsey metaphorically noted, the United States had slain the Soviet dragon only to face a jungle of poisonous snakes — the complexity of the international scene makes the accurate identification of a core national security problem a gamble? The plethora of venomous snakes generates a multitude of pressing mid-level issues, all of which call for technological solutions. Previously, the singular communist threat “drowned out”, to quote former DARPA director Arati Prabhakar, “all of the rest of the complexity of national security.” The complexity has been with us for a while now: The West faces a large number of difficult challenges, and by running myriad projects DARPA has morphed into an agency adapting to multiple hybrid risks.

Weinberger’s account of the 21st-century DAPRA is highly critical of its “inability to contribute to the ongoing military operations with usable technology.” However, much as the agency failed in Afghanistan and Iraq, so too did it accomplish little in Vietnam. Still, it was the Vietnam War that inspired cutting-edge projects that eventually made for the high-tech weapons driving the contemporary, so-called revolution in military affairs. DARPA’s greatest advantage is its ability to think far ahead, beyond the narrow interests of the present, and project innovations into the future. It takes time before the seeds of creativity produce the ripe fruits of transformative advancements. So, short-run outcomes shouldn’t prevail over long-term game-changing solutions.

And The Imagineers is, in fact, abundant with examples of this legacy of continuity. The satellite navigation project Transit, launched in 1958, was the forerunner of GPS. Already in the 1960s, ARPA examined the concept of combat drones for eliminating targets in North Vietnam. The range of developments pioneered during the Vietnam War laid the groundwork for the agency’s Tactical Technology Office, whose achievements — including precision-guided munitions, sensors, unmanned autonomous platforms, and electronic communication technologies — have profoundly shaped the U.S. military. The visions of man-computer symbiosis and an intergalactic network laid out in the 1960s by J.C.R. Licklider, a psychologist, computer scientist, and head of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office, paved the way for personal computers, the Internet, computer simulators, and the recently progressed brain-computer interface.

In the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, DARPA focused, as it did frequently in the past, on many definitive middle- or low-level military questions. To the problem of high casualties inflicted by roadside bombs it responded with the concept of self-driving cars, and unmanned convoys don’t seem a far-off possibility. The overloading of soldiers, which was severely jeopardizing performance and causing injuries, was addressed by military exoskeletons and the intelligent suit. The great number of servicemen losing an upper limb was the problem that gave rise to the marvelous cybernetic bionic arm. The use of neuroscience to augment a soldier’s cognitive threat recognition capabilities was explored to take on the challenge of tracing IEDs. Ever-increasing high operational tempos triggered successors to the Peak Soldier Performance program, exploring the promise of biotech in the optimization of combat.

Thus DARPA’s contribution to the War on Terror has not been, as Weinberger suggests, an utter failure. Furthermore, harnessing science in the service of counterterrorism will likely bring more results in the years to come. This was, Weinberger aptly shows, precisely the case with the Vietnam War-era Project Agile and counterinsurgency research overseen by her story’s leading character, William Godel. And it was perhaps the most amazing of ARPA’s less-known initiatives, which the book covers in an extremely interesting way. Established in 1961, aimed at exploring the roots of insurgency and developing methods to prevent it, Agile employed hundreds of people, including social scientists, at the agency’s overseas centers in Saigon and Thailand. Extensive experiments were conducted on chemical defoliants, sound sensors, man-hunting devices, and an electronic fence to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail. These were but a few of Agile’s many initiatives that ended in failure. But what in the short term proved futile culminated over two decades in the revolution in military affairs. Likewise, current science fictional projects may ultimately come to have great payoffs.

In sum, rich in fascinating stories on myriad, sometimes bizarre, projects, The Imagineers is an outstanding contribution to the sparse literature on DARPA. By providing a well-researched, solid historical bedrock, it offers a critical appraisal of its legacy and performance. The book’s real strength lies in the conclusion and overall assessment of the present-day agency. Weinberger sprinkles DARPA-funded techno-optimism with a pinch, and at times unduly even with a handful, of salt, thus setting the scene for an informed debate about the agency’s future.

Knowledge-intensive military technologies enable a more precise, effective, less costly, and more humane American way of war. DARPA’s inventions have, paradoxically, made it much easier for the U.S. to both get involved in and carry out military operations (with drones, stealth, precision-guided munitions, GPS etc.) and deal with the consequences of war (i.e. new methods of treatment of injuries, prosthetics). Science cannot abolish war but it has an awesome power to transform it and DARPA, the textbook evidence of the deep-seated marriage of knowledge and power, is a remarkable example of this.


Łukasz Kamieński is Associate Professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland and the author of Shooting Up. A Short History of Drugs and War (Oxford University Press, 2016) published recently in French as Les drogues et la guerre: De l’Antiquité à nos jours (Nouveau Monde éditions, 2017).

Image: DARPA

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