Platformitis

Edward Luttwak

  • The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of Darpa, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen
    Little, Brown, 560 pp, £12.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 316 34947 5

The development of a nuclear explosive device and two air-deliverable fission bombs by the Manhattan Engineering District of the US Army Corps of Engineers cost $1.845 billion, equivalent to the cost of a mere nine days of war. A much happier, and infinitely cheaper piece of research that also turned out to have world-historical impact was the development of a digital network between computers with TCP/IP communications protocols, better known as the internet. When the student-programmer Charley Kline sent the first instantaneous message (you had to print it out to keep it) on 29 October 1969, he inaugurated a new era; some months later Ray Tomlinson invented the first email program, using an @ address where such messages could linger.

That first computer network was funded by Arpa, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense. The same outfit, now known as Darpa, with ‘Defense’ tacked onto the start of the acronym, has achieved many other startling things over the years, from its support for the development of America’s first plastic and aluminium rifle in the early 1960s – actually a heroic struggle against the US army’s obdurate use of heavy steel and wooden stocks – to the development of Transit, the direct predecessor of the GPS satellite system that allows pilots and car drivers to find their destinations automatically, and enables the existence of the new self-driving cars, in addition to its many military uses. Another Darpa project was the Aspen Movie Map, a virtual tour of Aspen provided by the first hypermedia system (four cameras rigged on the top of a car taking pictures every ten feet). This technology was used to develop large-scale combat simulators which familiarise entire battalions with the place where they’re about to be deployed, and is now in everyday use. Other Darpa creations were more straightforwardly military, from penetration aid decoys that help ballistic missiles defeat interception attempts, to all manner of remotely piloted and robotic vehicles, including reconnaissance aircraft small enough to resemble large mosquitoes.

You might think there’s nothing surprising in all this: all sorts of scientific advances should be possible given the ample funds provided to this programme by the Department of Defense. But that’s the problem: the funds available are not ample, they are very modest by Pentagon standards. In 2015 $2.87 billion were allocated to Darpa, 0.47 per cent of the year’s total defence spending, and its staff of 220 are a tiny band among the 700,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense. How can technology-crazy America allow such a miserly allocation of funds and people?

The short explanation is that most of the money is reserved for the pseudo-innovations pursued by the uniformed services: the navy’s supposedly ultra-new aircraft carrier that retains an unchanged 1960s configuration; the F-35 jet fighter that offers thirty-year-old ‘stealth’ as its cutting-edge novelty; the new army tank that still looks very much like the 1944 German Tiger. The dominance of this sort of pseudo-innovation is a direct result of the composition of the US armed forces as an alliance of proudly separate services, each with its own traditions, institutional culture, career paths and – most important – iconic weapons.

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