In his State of the Union address, President Obama lauded two fruits that fell from the tree of government support for the basic research of "cutting-edge scientists and inventors": the Internet and GPS. Though he didn't mention it, that wasn't just any old "government support" and they weren't just any old "cutting-edge scientists and inventors." We're talking about government-supported work for the U.S. military and for the scientists in its employ.
As it happens, both came from work done by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and both have definitely embedded themselves in our lives. Here's a third glorious invention that's just now coming home to roost: the unmanned aerial drone presently fighting a much-boasted-about "covert" war of escalating ferocity in the Pakistani borderlands. The initial work for the earliest of these, the Predator, also came out of DARPA's intellectual chop shop, and now, Peter Finn of the Washington Post tells us, one of its children, "a bird-size device called the Wasp" (another DARPA project), could soon be flying over your home in Anytown USA, beaming live video to law enforcement agents on the ground.
The same Predators, now launching Hellfire missiles in Pakistan, are also being deployed to the Mexican and Canadian borders. (The Mexicans, too, are deploying drones, not always on their side of the border.) Other kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles are increasingly becoming surveillance tools for law enforcement agencies and even the local police. Soon enough, such a 24/7 eye-in-the-sky could be in your neighborhood and over your house (and even, one day, undoubtedly as part of a catch-the-bad-guys reality show, on your TV).
Americans are generally so detached from their wars that they don't think about the ways those wars and the weaponry and gear first tested in them could come home. In fact, not just in the air but on the ground, those distant conflicts have already come home far more fiercely than we realize, helping to militarize American society, even if in ways that we hardly notice.
And if any of this worries you, keep in mind that the eager-beaver scientists of DARPA are no less madly at work today than they were decades ago seeding the future, as Nick Turse, TomDispatch Associate Editor and author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, reminds us. Tom
Future Weapons, Future Wars, and the New Arms Race
By Nick Turse
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.
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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."