By Tom Engelhardt
We already have "stealth" aircraft, but what about a little of the
stealth that only nature can provide?
Navy Seals, move over -- here come the Navy sharks. According to the latest New Scientist magazine, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, the blue-sky wing of the Pentagon, has set yet another group of American scientists loose to create the basis for future red-in-tooth-and-maw Discovery Channel programs. In this case, they are planning to put neural implants into the brains of sharks in hopes, one day, of "controlling the animal's movements, and perhaps even decoding what it is feeling." In their dreams at least, DARPA'S far-out funders hope to "exploit sharks' natural ability to glide quietly through the water, sense delicate electrical gradients and follow chemical trails. By remotely guiding the sharks' movements, they hope to transform the animals into stealth spies, perhaps capable of following vessels without being spotted."
|So far they've only made it to the poor dogfish, "steered" in captivity
via electrodes keyed to "phantom odors." As it happens though,
DARPA-sponsored plans are a good deal lustier than that: Next stop, the blue
shark, which reaches a length of 13 feet. Project engineer Walter
Gomes of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island claims
a team will soon be putting neural implants "into blue sharks and
releas[ing] them into the ocean off the coast of Florida." To transmit
signals to the sharks, the team will need nothing less than a network of
signaling towers in the area. This has "anti-ballistic shark system"
written all over it.
Actually, it's not the first time the military has invested in shark technology. As Noah Shachtman of DefenseTech.org pointed out last July, "The Navy has tapped three firms to build prototype gadgets that duplicate what sharks do naturally: find prey from the electric fields they emit." One of them, Advanced Ceramics Research, Inc., limned the project's potential benefits this way: "If developed, such a capability might allow for the detection of small, hostile submarines entering a seawater inlet, harbor or channel, or allow objects such as mines to be pinpointed in shallow waters where sonar imaging is severely compromised." And then there's that ultimate underwater dream, the Microfabricated Biomimetic Artificial Gill System, that could lead to all sorts of Navy breakthroughs, perhaps even -- if you'll excuse a tad of blue-skying on my part -- blue shark/human tracking teams, or if not that, then lots of late-night-TV Aquaman
Of course, the Navy has been in nature's waters in a big way for a
while with its Marine
Mammal Program in San Diego. There, it trains bottlenose dolphins as
"sentries" and mine detectors. Such dolphins were "first
operationally deployed" in Vietnam in 1971 and a whole Dolphin patrol
(like, assumedly, the shark patrol to come) is now
on duty in the Khor Abd Allah waterway, Iraq's passageway into the
Persian Gulf. To the embarrassment of the Navy, a dolphin named Takoma
even went "AWOL" there in 2003, soon after the invasion of Iraq began.
Turse has pointed out, DARPA funds research into weaponizing creatures that inhabit just about any environmental niche imaginable -- including bees capable of detecting explosives; "eyes" patterned after those of flies that might someday make "smart" weaponry even smarter; gecko wall-climbing and octopi concealment techniques; and electrode-controlled rats capable of searching through piles of rubble. In addition, between nature and whatever the opposite of nurture may be, there's been an ongoing military give-and-take. Consider, for instance, BigDog, highlighted in the same issue of New Scientist. Compared to a pack mule, goat, or horse, this "robotic beast of burden" is being developed by Boston Dynamics to haul over rough terrain at least 40 kilograms of supplies soldiers won't need to carry, while being able to take a "hefty kick" in the legs without crumpling to the ground.
From sharks to robots, from hacking into your nervous system to manipulating the weather, the Pentagon seems determined to exert "full spectrum dominance" especially over that top of the line primate, us. To achieve this, it sponsors blue-sky thinking with a vengeance. Nothing that moves or breathes on the planet, it seems, is conceptually beyond conscription by Uncle Sam into possible future-war scenarios.
This is undoubtedly what happens when you have an administration that considers the Pentagon the answer to all our problems and gives it a $439.3 billion budget to play with -- and that's exclusive of actual war-fighting money (which, for Iraq and Afghanistan, at an estimated $120 billion for the
year, will come in supplemental requests to Congress). And remember as
well that the fiscal 2007 Pentagon budget does not include the $9.3
billion the Department of Energy will put into nuclear weapons or a host
of veterans-care benefits, all of which bring the budget at least close to
the $600 billion range. Analyzing the 2006 budget, economist Robert Higgs
estimated that all military-related outlays -- that is, the real
Pentagon budget -- totaled closer to $840
Even taken at face value, the 2007 budget accounts for more than half
of the $873 billion in federal discretionary spending -- the funds that
the President and Congress decide to spend each year. For 2007, education,
the second largest discretionary budget item, amounts to just over $50
billion, a piddling sum by comparison. But there is probably no way to put
any version of the Pentagon's finances into perspective. Militarily
speaking, it throws other military spending on the planet into the deepest
shadow. As Frida Berrigan, senior research associate at the World Policy
Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center and co-author of Weapons
at War 2005, points out, "The Pentagon accounts for about half the
world's total military expenditures of $1.04 trillion, spending alone what
the 32 next most powerful nations spend together."
The United States is also by far the planet's largest exporter of
weapons and military hardware. An annual Congressional Research Service
report found that, in 2004, global weapons deliveries totaled nearly $37
billion -- with the United States responsible for more than 33% of them,
or $12.4 billion, and it hasn't gotten better since.
No other country puts anything like such effort, planning, and dreaming
into the idea of projecting planet-spanning military power, caught so
grimly in that phrase, "full spectrum dominance." To Pentagon minds this
seems to mean: from 20,000 leagues down to 20 miles up (and everything
that creeps, crawls, swims, or flies in between). The phrase first gained
attention with the release in 2000 of the Air Force's Joint Vision 2020
statement -- a supposed look into a future world of American war-making.
It's one of those terms that sticks with you -- and not just because of
the full-spectrum weaponry that's now on the drawing boards, ranging from
hypervelocity rod bundles meant to penetrate underground bunkers from
outer space (ominously nicknamed "rods from
god") to the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV), "an
unmanned maneuverable spacecraft that [by 2010] would travel at five
times the speed of sound and could carry 1,000 pounds of munitions,
intelligence sensors or other payloads" anywhere on the planet within two
hours, or that permanent
base on the moon the Bush administration has called for by 2020 (and
the array of Star Wars-style space-based weaponry that would ring it).
Full-spectrum dominance turns out to include even the United States
where, in 2002, the Bush administration established the United States
Northern Command or Northcom whose website at present has the following
from a visit by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul
McHale as its reassuring quote of the week: "I'm leaving with a clear
sense of confidence in the vision and planning of NORTHCOM to deal with
any emerging threat, whether an occurrence of pandemic flu, a 2006
hurricane ... or a terrorist attack still being planned by our
While the Pentagon quietly begins to take over tasks that once were delegated to civilian agencies, its blue-sky weapons planning extends into the distant future. Take, for instance, the Air Force Futures Game 05, held for several days last October in the Dulles, Virginia office of consultants Booz Allen Hamilton. The exercise was dedicated to "looking at scenarios for the year 2025," especially one in which a nuclear weapon is loose in a "Middle Eastern country" and a major war is in the offing. Like many other Pentagon war-gaming exercises, this one was largely committed to confirming the usefulness of as yet nonexistent or hardly existent weaponry, especially in the areas of "space access" and "electronic warfare." According to Col. Gail Wojtowicz, Air Force division director of future concepts and transformation, the gamers were "also looking at one of the trickiest issues the Air Force or another service may have to face: what the Pentagon can do on American soil." Indeed.
Military analyst William Arkin wrote about these particular Air Force games, meant to boost "laser, high-powered microwaves, and acoustic weapons," at his Washington Post Early Warning blog. Such blue-sky exercises, he explained, advance new weapons systems (and their corporate sponsors) "along the familiar development path of boosters and patrons feeding information to war gamers who feed study participants who feed researchers who feed manufacturers. At the end of the day, it is hard to tell whether high powered microwaves and laser came into being because someone conceived it out of need or because its existence in the laboratory created the need."
To support letting inventive minds roam free outside normal frameworks
is in itself an inspired idea. But I bet there's no DARPA-like agency
elsewhere in the government funding the equivalent for education 2025 or
health 2025 or even energy independence 2025. To have this happen, I'm
afraid, you would have to transform them into Northcom war games.
Now it's true that much blue-skying may never come to be. Those U.S.
Navy stealth sharks may not patrol our coasts and a good, swift enemy kick
to some unexpected spot on BigDog's anatomy may fell the "creature," if
budgetary or high-tech wrinkles don't do the trick first -- just as an
unexpected series of low-tech blows to our full-spectrum military has left
the Pentagon desperate and the Army unraveling in Iraq.
Wouldn't it be nice, though, if official blue-sky thinking didn't
always mean mobilizing finances, scientists, corporations, and even the
animal kingdom in the service of global death. Wouldn't it be nice to blue
sky just a tad about life?
[Note: Special thanks for Pentagon facts and figures in this piece go to Frida Berrigan of the World Policy Institute's invaluable Arms Trade Resource Center. To keep up with the latest Pentagon full-spectrum dominance projects, be sure to check out Noah Shachtman's entertaining as well as useful DefenseTech website, heavily mined for this piece, and William Arkin's Washington Post Early
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a
regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire
Project and the author of The
End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold
War. His novel, The
Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.
Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt
All rights reserved.
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