The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World

Image of The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World
Release Date: 
March 13, 2017
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“The irony of DARPA is that even as its mandate has shrunk, its reputation has ballooned.”

DARPA was originally known as ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for the Department of Defense. The “D” for Defense was tacked on after congressional intercession to make sure those who are sponsored by DARPA cannot later deny they didn’t know where their sponsorship came from.

ARPA was responsible for U.S. space efforts prior to the creation of NASA. NASA was handed the civilian space program while ARPA handled spy satellites, missile countermeasures, and insurgency countermeasures. ARPA was responsible the AR15 rifle—the predecessor to the M16, “fortified villages,” the use of helicopters for troop transport, social science research in war zones, the chemical defoliant and teratogenic pesticide Agent Orange, and also for the ARPANET, which was the predecessor to the Internet.

The Imagineers of War is a good companion piece to Annie Jacobsen’s The Pentagon’s Brain, previously reviewed in NYJB. Both books are well researched, and though both cover the same subject, they differ in emphasis and selection of detail. Both authors Sharon Weinberger and Annie Jacobsen provide greater detail the closer events are to the present.

Of the two authors, Sharon Weinberger may the better storyteller for one reason: She has brought ARPA operator William Godel out of the shadows. Prior to joining ARPA Godel was part of Operation Paperclip, the effort to bring German rocket scientists to the U.S. at the end of WWII, and after joining ARPA he became their “bagman,” bringing suitcases of money around the world to fund secret projects.

ARPA was established by President Eisenhower in response to Russia’s first space satellite, sputnik. ARPA’s role was to organize and fund rather than conduct research. Weinberger provides the backstory of the many ARPA directors and administrators. The Imagineers of War is also filled with personalities and anecdotes; many have entries on Wikipedia, as well as transcripts of interviews.

The creation of ARPA began with a 1954 Technological Capabilities Panel Report commissioned by President Eisenhower that recommended building a science satellite (as pretext) to establish “Freedom of Space.” The pretext was necessary because of the concern that a satellite from one country that flew over another country without permission would it be seen as an act of aggression while civilian overflights would not. However the presence of civilian satellites would pave the way for U.S. military satellites because there would be no way to distinguish a science satellite from a military satellite.

Why do this at all? The problem for any author in recounting significant historical events of the Cold War era is the amount of context needed for presidential decisions to be understood. Both authors have difficulty turning series of facts into coherent narrative, tending to steamroll the facts one after the other (which for a reader, this is not too different from reading the entries in a telephone book). Thankfully, these passages are short. What has been lost however is how seriously at that time the fear of nuclear war was.

What was on Eisenhower’s mind was the possibility of a nuclear Pearl Harbor by Soviet Russia, and the best way to avoid surprise was continual aerial surveillance of Russia.

While surveillance by airplane was risky (Americans pilots had been shot down and killed for doing this) surveillance by satellite was not.

Eisenhower’s plan for civilian satellite overflight was called Open Skies. Khrushchev was against Open Skies as he considered overflights would not be for openness but for U.S. targeting. Despite this, America, publically through the civilian IGY (International Geophysical Year 1957–58) announced a program of developing space satellites for science.

The problem however was there was no U.S. civilian space program. There were three separate military space programs for the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. Of the three, only the Navy’s program was not associated with a weapon. Eisenhower okay’d the Navy’s program and forced a halt to construction to the Air Force and Army satellite programs. The Navy fell behind schedule. Meanwhile, the Russians concerned over the American announcement to be first with a satellite rushed, completed, and launched Sputnik, taking America by surprise.

Eisenhower wasn’t impressed, seeing Sputnik as a political stunt. Sputnik weighed a mere 184 lbs. and its sole purpose was to circle the Earth and beep. Politically however the Russians did America a favor by setting precedence on overflights. No nation complained about Sputnik‘s overflight.

Weinberger points out the consequence of not being first, “Eisenhower was right about the science but misjudged the national mood.” Lyndon Johnson, the Senate leader, criticized the Republican president for being complacent, “Soon, they [the Russians] will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks on cars from freeway overpasses.”

With the creation of ARPA, the various military and intelligence satellites went from the DOD to ARPA oversight. With the creation of NASA, civilian satellites and the Saturn rocket program were moved from ARPA to NASA. There were bureaucratic battles over early ARPA because the power and money that went to ARPA had been taken away from the DOD, and bureaucratic infighting restarted with each rocket launch, whether the launch was a success or a failure.

To counter the Soviet’s publicity coup with Sputnik, ARPA launched SCORE (Signal Communications Orbiting Relay Equipment), which did not beep, instead it transmitted President Eisenhower’s Christmas message via onboard tape recorder. The message was received by and rebroadcast from the Prince Albert Radar Observatory in Canada.

The presumably civilian science satellite Discoverer was not run by NASA but by ARPA and was actually a cover for testing the environmental capsule of the spy satellite CORONA. To keep up the ruse of being a science satellite Discoverer was launched with mechanical mice that mimicked signs of life. The first Discoverer capsule landed inside the Arctic Circle and was never recovered, and it took CORONA 12 launches before its first capsule was recovered. The CORONA satellite, declassified in 2012, took pictures that were greater in detail than U2 spy planes because the satellite orbited over Russia without violating Russia’s airspace.

There are many fascinating characters in ARPA’s history. Physicist Nicholas Christofilos came up with the idea of using nuclear explosions in the magnetosphere as a defensive shield against Soviet ICBM missiles, i.e. an atom bomb powered electromagnetic pulse (EMP). To test this idea, Project Argus set off three nuclear blasts in the upper atmosphere between August and September 1958. The experiment failed because the magnetic field was not strong enough to hold high-energy particles for very long. The details of Project Argus have only recently been declassified; readers can Google “Anthropogenic Space Weather” by T. J. Gambosi, et al. for more information.

When director Roy Johnson exited ARPA to become a professional artist, Jack Ruina became the next director and ran ARPA from 1961 through 1964. The major portion of funding under Ruina’s stewardship from went to ballistic missile defense, where Project Defender considered ideas such as particle beam weapons, and using of nets to capture enemy ICBMs. Project Vela funded seismology programs at universities to detect underground nuclear tests, and caused one of the first bureaucratic battles between “open” (unclassified) and “closed” (classified or secret) science. Open science won, and the money pumped into universities built 125 seismographic stations in more than 60 countries and indirectly created new and lively fields of science for oceanic earthquakes and plate tectonics.

Proving that nuclear tests could be monitored by seismology enabled President Kennedy to sign a Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 that halted nuclear tests in the atmosphere. Weinberger writes, “Sometimes science and policy meet up, as they did with arms control in the early 1960s; other times they do not, demonstrating that technology alone is not enough to solve problems.”

ARPA in this period also funded computer research across universities including MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, Stanford, and Carnegie Tech resulting in interactive computing, email, and the mouse. The invention of the Internet came from scientist J. C. R. Licklider. Licklider was a PhD psychologist who had gotten involved with computers while working at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories. As big as the Internet is today, at that time ARPA Director Ruina had little idea what Licklider was doing, saying “I did nothing for the Internet except hire the guy who did it.”

ARPA also ran a number of projects in southeast Asia under the title Project AGILE. With Project AGILE ARPA used the Vietnam War as test-bed for counter-insurgency techniques including testing new weapons, communications, jungle fighting techniques, the use of chemical defoliants (e.g. Agent Orange), and population resettlement.

One counterinsurgency effort was a project geared toward understanding an invaded country’s people and culture; to this end ARPA’s staff added social scientists. Bringing social scientists into defense analysis raised concerns that social scientists would be corrupted. Weinberger writes, “. . . there was a tendency to pay for studies that supported what the military wanted to hear rather than what it needed to hear.” And when one Rand analyst, Leon Gouré recommended what the Air Force wanted he saw his funding go from $100K to $100M.

ARPA’s approach was to treat the world as a military laboratory, however their efforts were unfocused and their results were mixed. In one effort, ARPA designed field rations for the Ethiopian military, and in another ARPA trained Iran’s border security to stop drug smuggling. The Iran effort was so successful it was halted by the Shah’s family, which was invested in drug smuggling. Weinberger adds, “Many projects failed from sheer incompetence,” many projects were weeded out by the director after Ruina. Congress ended ARPA’s support of social science projects in 1969, as part of the Mansfield amendment.

There is a chapter on the Advanced Sensors office, ARPA’s tie into the spy world. Advanced Sensors’ first program was Project Pandora; research into mind control. Project Pandora ran for five years and none of their research had the rigor or controls associated with “normal” science. Pandora spent $5M before it was shut down, and its program director Richard Cesaro was fired in 1971 for “serial dishonesty.”

Through the mid to late 1970s ARPA funded the development of stealth aircraft, drones, and hypersonic aircraft, including the F117. In 1981 DARPA was allowed a seat on the Defense Resources Board where the Pentagon selected major weapons systems. Being on this board allowed DARPA to take part in President Reagan’s defense buildup.  And though ARPA did not take part in Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile shield and successfully avoided being part of that multibillion-dollar boondoggle, DARPA’s hypersonic aircraft project grew into its own multibillion-dollar boondoggle before it was handed off to the Air Force and killed there.

In the 1980s DARPA funded advanced computer and AI projects though none led to any great computing breakthroughs. In 1989 DARPA entered the venture capital market to fund research companies for military products. Venture capital funding allowed ARPA to avoid standard government contracting rules. The publicity of DARPA funding “dual-use” technology led President George H. W. Bush to fire the then DARPA Director, Craig Fields. This period also saw a reduction of DARPA’s influence within in the Pentagon. Weinberger writes, “DARPA lurched from one project to the next, without any real strategic direction or plan.”

In response to September 11, 2001, DARPA’s Information Awareness Office began the Total Information Awareness (TIA) project. TIA was run by John Poindexter who before his ARPA appointment was one of the members of the Iran-Contra scandal and found guilty of lying to, misleading, and obstructing Congress. How was this possible? The director of DARPA didn’t think a nation at war would agonize over who was running any of its projects.

TIA was officially rolled out at “DARPATech” in Disneyland in 2002, where a very public announcement generated only moderate press coverage. However after a William Safire column in the New York Times, Congress asked to be briefed on TIA. Poindexter’s briefing to Congress went very badly, and the TIA program was taken away from Poindexter and ARPA and moved to the more secretive intelligence community. (Annie Jacobsen’s reporting on Poindexter’s briefing is the more colorful of the two).

There’s more on DARPA projects in the years between 2002 and 2010 but there is only so much that can be crammed into a book review. However, in evaluating current DARPA activities, Weinberger warns, “The danger facing the agency today is irrelevance to national security.” DARPA’s privileged role in military research has been diminished as noted by increased competition. Competitors to DARPA including the National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL), and the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx).

The Imagineers of War has photos, 50 pages of notes, a list of sources, and a chapter on Weinberger’s research sources, four pages of acknowledgements, a bibliography, and an index.