What has military research done for us?

March 11, 2018

In a post eight years ago I looked at the relationship between war and technology and how war has always been an enormous driver of technological change. I am fascinated by this subject and recently read a couple of books which look at research carried out by the American military.

If you like oddball science then Mary Roach is the author for you. In previous books she has looked at cadavers, sex researchers and flatulence research. Her latest book is Grunt – The Curious Science of Humans at War. She is not looking at the latest high-tech weapons system. The book includes chapters on what to wear to war, the conundrum of military noise, genital transplants, maggot therapy, how combat medics cope and when things go wrong in submarines.

In one of the looser chapters she looks at the problem of diarrhoea. I have to say that I had never thought of the problem of soldier having the runs. Roach accompanied a researcher to the Horn of Africa to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Diarrhoea can really affect soldiers such as the Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, who operate from bases in remote, rural areas, where there isn’t a safe water supply, and where the food may have been contaminated by flies. Their solution is a medicine that you take for just one day.

She also examines stink bombs. During World War II, the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA, thought that stink bombs could really help win the war, especially against the Japanese. While investigating the OSS archives Roach found that they had devoted two years to manufacturing a liquid with “the revolting odour of a very loose bowel movement.” The project’s was named Why me?. The malodorous weapon would be squirted from a 2-inch tube. It had a powerful and lasting faecal odour.  It was never deployed as Japan surrendered after the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki.

There is an account of the chicken gun, a cannon with a 60ft barrel that fires at aircraft components and even fighter planes to test the potential that they will be damaged by flying birds. Both jet engines and aircraft windshields are known to be particularly vulnerable to damage from such strikes. Apparently, the whole, dead normal chicken that you stick in the oven is perfect for simulating a large, live bird hitting a flying plane

The Imagineers of War by Sharon Weinberger looks at DARPA (The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), which was created in the wake of the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1958. DARPA is, as Weinberger proclaims in the book’s subtitle, the Pentagon agency that changed the world. It’s not just the Internet and GPS. The story is so much more.

Before 1972 the agency was known as ARPA and Space was originally part of its remit. But when NASA, which had also been created in 1958, took over the Space Race, DARPA had to find a new role. Vietnam was slowly emerging as a theatre of conflict. President John F. Kennedy was said to be a big fan of counterinsurgency. This type of limited asymmetric warfare was designed for fighting communist insurgents in the jungles of Vietnam and the neighbouring countries. The government funded ARPA’s Combat Development and Test Center’s Project Agile. Its research ranged from everything from electronic surveillance to sociological research. The man in charge of this was William Godel, a former intelligence operative. Researchers experimented with manipulating village food supplies by destroying rice crops, engineering population resettlement and, most infamously, deploying chemical Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used as a defoliant. Then there were the more bizarre ideas such as sending a psychoanalyst to Saigon to administer Rorschach ink-blot tests to the Viet Cong or a plan to control Vietnamese villages through mass hypnosis.

The term out of-of-the box is overused but it can be applied to Godel. They may have been “completely screwball”, but they were given funding. DARPA sought  high risk, high payoff projects. Godel wasn’t the only oddball who worked for DARPA. We also have Herman Kahn, who is said to have been one of the three inspirations for Dr. Strangelove. His idea was to build a moat around Saigon to keep out the VC. And there was Nicholas Christofilos, who wanted to create a planetary force field to protect America from nuclear weapons. This was a non-starter, so he came up with Project Seesaw, which involved a particle beam that was going to blast incoming nuclear weapons out of space. Would it be expensive to drill all these holes? No problem – just nuke them. Christofilos liked to think of it like a suppository, going through the rock, creating a perfect tube. As an effective particle beam would also drain the entire U.S. electrical grid, he proposed nuking another vast hole next to the Great Lakes, which would be  drained in just 15 minutes to power vast generators. The Greek physicist’s presentation is said to have gone down well with his fellow scientists and the project was not finally dropped until the mid-’70s.

Weinberger is critical of a narrowing of focus by DARPA. She talks about Disneyfication”: an organisation pursuing expensive gadgets with limited potential to meet the national-security challenges that the USA faces. Of course had important failures, but they also had great successes. Apart from the abovementioned Internet and GPS, they have given us the stealth aircraft, driverless cars, virtual personal assistants and battlefield robots. Weinberger believes that the big challenge facing DARPA is to be relevant for the next sixty years.