Fighting talk

DARPA director Dr. Anthony Tether describes how the agency is transforming the US military into a technological world beater – that may include robot soldiers. Rob Coppinger reports.

Next March, Disneyland in California will play host to a group of engineers, businessmen and US government officials. The conference will appear unremarkable, scarcely attracting a second glance from tourists visiting the amusement park. But the subjects under discussion will be far from ordinary and in many ways more fantastic than anything Disney could conjure up.

For these are the men and women who work for arguably the most influential research organisation in the world, DARPA – the US government’s department of defence’s Defence Advanced Research Project Agency, and the technology think-tank behind America’s military supremacy.

Even DARPA’s critics do not deny its power and influence, which stretches across the globe. Outside the US its presence is apparent nowhere more than in the UK (see sidebar).

DARPA will spend around $3bn (£1.8bn) this year on some 200 projects in computing, space weapons, counter-terrorism, unmanned aerial vehicles and biological defence. And that is only what it will openly admit to.

The master of ceremonies at the Disneyland conference will be its director, Dr Anthony Tether. In a rare in-depth interview, the man at the heart of DARPA described how robotic armies are high on the agency’s agenda. Tether, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering, said all-pervasive communications technologies are also a priority.

DARPA’s research priorities today have an excellent chance of becoming tomorrow’s reality. Although most people will not have heard of DARPA, the organisation likes to boast that the desktop computer, the mobile phone, satellite television and the internet can all trace their origins back to its research laboratories.

So what are its priorities for the future? ‘I think one that will be most apparent is in the networking area,’ said Tether. ‘If we can develop networks that do not require infrastructure then you will find that communications, and people with phones, will be pervasive. You won’t have to worry about a mobile phone tower and that will probably, in my crystal ball, be the biggest impact on society.’

Tether was coy about exactly how this would work, but claimed the benefits would be the ability to move information around in larger quantities and more reliably. There would be no more ‘dead zones’ for mobile communications where all signal is lost. Whether it was a private or emergency call, communications could really be relied on any time anywhere.

Reliable self-forming networks such as these are also good in a fast-moving theatre of conflict, which is really what DARPA is all about. The post-9/11 period has seen the biggest rise in the US military’s budget since the end of the Cold War. Tether’s boss, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is also spearheading what he calls the ‘transformation’ of the US military, with DARPA at the heart of that process.

Tether leaves no room for doubt that soon America wants to send its robots into battle rather than its GIs. ‘In the future I’d say our most profound impact in the military will be with the unmanned vehicle (air, ground and sea). And the reason that’s so profound is that we are now going to be able to have the same [military] capability with far fewer people.’

According to Tether, the plight of Private Jessica Lynch, whose vehicle got lost and was ambushed in Iraq, could be avoided in future. ‘That vehicle could have been robotic. It could have been a robotic vehicle following another, you could have convoys of robotic vehicles and that would have made a major impact over there.’ (Next March will also see DARPA’s Grand Challenge race, a competition between unmanned ground vehicles to drive unaided 200 miles across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The winning team will get a $1m prize.)

If the idea of robot vehicles, or even soldiers, going into conflict seems fanciful, Tether points to the skies.

‘If you look at our Predator, which is a robot that flies, that is being used in combat. So the answer is you won’t have to wait 10 years, it’s happening now.’

Tether said that DARPA’s work on robot planes, ground vehicles and ships is already spinning out machine intelligence into civilian areas. He claimed some of it is even being used in manufacturing industry.

DARPA and Tether’s visions for the future are striking. But the broader agenda of this most powerful and secretive organisation is open to debate.

Technological advance in many societies has been driven by military research. According to Tether, this is because the outcome of any conflict has such drastic consequences that the necessity of military victory is the surest mother of invention.Of course, injured national pride can also be a powerful incentive. DARPA was created by President Eisenhower in the aftermath of the surprise launch of Sputnik 3 by the Soviet Union in February 1958.

‘The country was very embarrassed about Sputnik,’ said Tether. ‘It wasn’t that we did not have the capability to put a satellite in space, just that it was a capability that was on no particular [armed] services menu at the time.’

And so the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), as it was originally called, was set up. Now based in Arlington, Virginia, its mission is ‘sponsoring revolutionary, high pay-off research that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use’. Its track record of innovation since is impressive (see sidebar).

But for all the technological superiority of America’s forces, the one successful direct strike on mainland US soil on 11 September 2001 was a distinctly low-tech affair. For Tether’s organisation it was a surprise that echoed the event that brought it into being. ‘9/11 is in many senses a second Sputnik,’ he admitted.

DARPA had identified what it called the asymmetric threat in the mid-1990s. ‘The trade towers had been bombed once, and we’d heard from the Philippines about using aeroplanes as weapons. And we were developing the technology to counter that. What we weren’t doing was putting it into an integrated system so that the capability was there. 9/11 really brought that home,’ said Tether.

In Iraq, the US army is currently losing a man a day fighting against low-tech weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades. ‘We’re looking into Iraq and Afghanistan to try to figure out what needs were not satisfied and what needs came out of it,’ said Tether.

Technologies to counter terrorism and help US soldiers in the field are what you would expect an organisation such as DARPA to focus on. But what of the wider agenda, the justification for the fact that DARPA accounts for no less than one quarter of the DoD’s entire science and technology budget activity?

A sanitised version of DARPA’s strategy is publicly available on its website. This reinforces the impression of a piecemeal agenda, devoted to solving individual problems. But it came as no surprise when Tether confirmed that classified projects do not appear. Such a large budget might be expected to aim for more specific, wide-ranging capabilities for the armed services, but Tether is tight-lipped on the agency’s agenda. Initially all Tether would say was: ‘DARPA’s role is to look for those ideas that could result in capabilities that are not now being pursued.’

Pressed on the issue, however, he admitted to more. In his view, the agency exists to provide the technology to enable the US military to go anywhere, at any time and to observe and/or strike any target of interest. To achieve this awesome ambition, DARPA will have to come up with the type of groundbreaking technology exemplified by Stealth aircraft – for Tether one of the organisation’s proudest moments. ‘We really surprised the Soviets. We now had a technology that took their total air defence system and negated it. The [Soviet] air defence system was no longer able, with confidence, to detect our planes coming in.’

In the post-9/11 world DARPA will inevitably be looking for a similar coup. Tether offered a clue when he pointed to the Congressional enquiry into 9/11 and its references to a lack of collaboration, lack of information sharing and lack of language translation. He confirmed that all those issues are now the subject of programmes at DARPA.

One such project is its deception-detection programme. Started this year, this has a $2m annual budget. It will analyse a variety of lie-detection technologies from facial bloodflow to body language. In April this year, the US government also revaled that it was interested in Manchester Metropolitan University’s Silent Talker lie-detection system. If lie detection seems controversial enough to garner bad press for the agency it was in fact two other projects that led to the resignation of one of DARPA’s officials.

Two controversial homeland security projects, however, have already caused DARPA some unwelcome media coverage earlier this year. They were Futuremap and Total Information Awareness (TIA).

Futuremap was designed to operate as a bizarre twist on a conventional futures market for commodities such as wheat or wool, except that its commodity was terrorist attack scenarios. ‘Investors’ would have effectively bet on the likelihood of specific terrorist attacks or other major world events. The idea was to draw intelligence from around the world in pursuit of profit. Total Information Awareness, on the other hand, aimed to ‘mine’ all electronically available data regarding people’s purchases to determine a global pattern to the movements of suspect terrorists.

When shocked congressmen and senators learned of Futuremap, the project was cancelled. TIA lives on – albeit rebranded as Terrorism Information Awareness – but is expected to be pared back by Senate budget cuts. According to US press reports, the bad publicity will result in DARPA’s budget being slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars in the Senate.

It has been these forays into areas of technology that smack of surveillance, especially of US citizens, that have caused growing calls for DARPA to be brought out of the shadows, explain what it is doing and justify its huge budget.

Some critics have said that DARPA has changed from being a source of ‘blue sky’ ideas that other agencies such as the Air Force could take forward into a self-contained technology development centre with a huge budget and little accountability.

While monitoring government funding of science Daniel Greenberg, editor of the US-based Science and Government newsletter, has long been intrigued about why a relatively small organisation such as DARPA can have such success and influence. ‘I think from what I’ve been able to find out the real secret of DARPA’s success – or its apparent success – is number one, it has a hell of a lot of money. It can drench its activities with money. Number two, it doesn’t have Congress looking over its shoulder. It operates with a very small staff that is given a great deal of responsibility. It’s sort of hard to miss when you’re working in those circumstances.’

Greenberg is also sceptical about claims that DARPA is the root of much everyday technology. He prefers to think of the agency as having influence but not necessarily being the font of innovation, especially for the internet.

‘I would be somewhat cautious in saying DARPA invented the internet,’ he said. ‘A great deal of activity was pointing in that direction. This is not to take credit away from DARPA – it saw the opportunities and certainly exploited them. But I seriously doubt we would be without the internet today but for DARPA.’

The agency is not even immune from criticism from the military it spends so much of its time developing systems to help. Gary Chapman, a former US Army special-forces soldier now working for the University of Texas, said he knows his fellow soldiers are not as enthusiastic about DARPA’s gadgets as Tether and his programme managers may like to believe. ‘The ideas of autonomous weapons on automated battlefields and, most especially, pilotless aircraft, are typically not welcomed with enthusiasm by line combat officers,’ he claimed.

‘There is a fair amount of friction between combat officers and the DARPA breed of civilian ‘techie’ researchers. Many line officers believe wars are won by resolve, courage, honour and the justness of a cause, combined with adequate force levels and good planning. The idea that war is a mere technical exercise is anathema to them.’

Tether refused to accept that DARPA has switched its focus. ‘One of its first projects was a programme called Corona. That was a spy satellite system for going and bringing back film on other countries. We still do the same kinds of things. DARPA has really not changed over the years in what it does and why it does it.’

Tether admitted that DARPA is not so omnipresent that, if it did not exist, technologies such as the internet would not have emerged. But he is adamant the process would have been much slower. ‘What we do is we make it happen a lot faster. We accelerate ideas from the far side to the near side, faster than they might otherwise happen.’

DARPA can point to independent commentators to back this up. According to the 2001 Transitioning DARPA Technology study by the Washington-based Potomac Institute for Policy, ‘The agency’s [technology] transition performance has been impressive.’ It also found that DARPA’s involvement with industry substantially aided that success, and that such technology would find its way into the civilian sector. ‘DARPA/industry/academia consortia have had major impacts on commercial markets,’ it concluded.

In truth, the man Tether has to justify spending such a huge budget to is Rumsfeld. Brought in as director in early 2001 Tether, has about another 18 months in his job, if he follows DARPA tradition of five-year tenures. Meanwhile, he and DARPA will keep shaping the future of the US military machine, and friend and foe alike will keep watching for clues.

Tether is aware that DARPA’s website is a must-visit for many organisations, not all of them friendly to the US. ‘We had a new programme that you probably have read about to create an aircraft that can go halfway around the world in two hours. The first news break after that appeared on our website came out of Pakistan. It gives you the feeling for who’s monitoring the website.’

With such a high-powered team in town, Disneyland may have a few distinctly shadowy visitors next March, hoping for an insight into the wars of the future.

Sidebar: ‘Fundamental discovery’ that led to the stealth fighter

In the years since Eisenhower decided to use ‘fundamental discovery’ to improve the US military’s capabilities, DARPA has produced some of the world’s outstanding military technology – and its fair share of the weird and the wacky.

The Soviet Sputnik triumph meant its early days were focused on space and missiles in general. Rocketry, ballistic missile defence and nuclear test detection were all researched, along with space exploration and the design of space stations.

NASA is one of the organisations spun out of the original ARPA. Another is the Ballistic Missile Defence Agency which runs the Star Wars missile shield programme.

In the 1960s the Vietnam war became a preoccupation. Project AGILE was the code name for research in this area, including a mechanical, elephant-like transportation vehicle that would tramp through Vietnamese jungle where Jeeps could not go. The $1m project, inevitably dubbed a ‘techno-white elephant’, was quickly cancelled by an incoming director.

However, the 1960s also saw the creation of ARPA-net, a computer network that sent e-mails between scientists and was a major step towards the internet.

In the 1970s the word defence was added to change ARPA into DARPA. But this did not mean that the projects necessarily got any more straightforward. A method of spying called Remote Viewing was researched. Individuals believed to have extra-sensory perception sat in dark rooms searching out Soviet military sites with their ‘mind’s eye’.

However, the 1970s saw the first tentative steps into unmanned aerial vehicles, tipped to be the key to US military ambitions in the coming years.

The decade also marked the beginning of research that would eventually create the stealth fighter and stealth bomber, which became possibly the agency’s biggest contribution to the US’s aerial supremacy over the Soviet Union.

Sidebar: The UK connection

The treasure chest of DARPA’s technology is firmly locked to most of the world. But the UK is one of a handful of nations with which the organisation is prepared to work at the highest level of military research, Anthony Tether confirmed .

‘It’s a very precious relationship,’ said Tether. The DARPA director was particularly impressed with one unidentified UK company’s work on a project to improve what he described as a ‘fibre laser’.

He said the firm achieved a ‘world record’ by getting 1kW of power out of such a device. For Tether that represented a ‘fantastic achievement’ that could benefit an important strand of the US organisation’s research into battlefield lasers.

Anti-artillery lasers are being developed along with lasers that could be fitted to the new Joint Strike Fighter and future attack helicopters.

Another project from a UK-only university consortium is the Quantum Cascade laser project. Involving Cambridge, Leeds, Sheffield, Heriot-Watt and UK technology development giant Qinetiq, its research could provide secure orbital and battlefield communications.

BAE Systems’ US subsidiary is involved in a range of projects as a consortium partner with DARPA. They include an unmanned combat helicopter, ground and air communications for the US military’s Future Combat Systems project and a new anti-tank missile.

The UK government’s own defence research agency, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, also confirmed that some of its work is in co-operation with DARPA as part of its wide-ranging relationship with the US.