Weaponizing the Pentagon's
Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse
Monday, March 31, 2008
We at Tomdispatch love anniversaries. So how could we have forgotten
DARPA's for so many months? This very year, the Pentagon's research
outfit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA),
turns 50 old. Happy birthday, DARPA! You were born as a response
to the Soviet Union's launching of the first earth-girdling satellite,
Sputnik, which gave Americans a mighty shock. To prevent another
"technological surprise" by the Soviets – or anybody
else, any time, ever – the agency has grown into the Pentagon's
good right arm, always there to reach into the future and grab
another wild idea for weaponization. Each year, DARPA now spends
about $3 billion on a two-fold mission: "to prevent technological
surprise for us and to create technological surprise for our adversaries."
Next month, the agency will celebrate its anniversary with a
conference that aims to "reflect on [its] challenges and
accomplishments… over the past 50 years and to consider
the Agency's goals for the next 50 years." What a super idea!
Think of that. The next 50! If only Tomdispatch is still around
– my brain well preserved and renewed (thanks to some nifty
cutting-edge science from the TD Advanced Research Projects Lab)
– to see War 2058 arrive and blow out those 100-year anniversary
candles on the planet.
In the meantime, the future is now and Pentagon expert Nick Turse
is at work – see below – on the latest developments
in DARPA's plans to help an overstretched military by reaching
into the insect kingdom for its newest well-weaponized recruits.
The first larval Marines, perhaps. Ten-HUT! Unlike Americans at
present, they should simply swarm to the recruiting offices.
(Article continues below)
It's a strange (not to say hair-raising) subject for a journalist
who has lately been covering the air war in Iraq and elsewhere
for Tomdispatch. But the Pentagon's urge to weaponize the wild
kingdom is a topic Turse has long been familiar with and that
he deals with powerfully in his remarkable new book, The Complex:
How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. It is – believe
me – the single most powerful look yet at all the subtle
and complicated ways American lives have been militarized during
the last decades. (For a short video discussion I had with Turse,
Oh, and here's a suggestion for DARPA from a New Yorker. When
you're recruiting those bugs, don't forget the roaches in my kitchen.
They've been idle too long. ~ Tom
Futuristic Nightmare That Just Might Come True
By Nick Turse
Biological weapons delivered by cyborg insects. It sounds like
a nightmare scenario straight out of the wilder realms of science
fiction, but it could be a reality, if a current Pentagon project
comes to fruition.
Right now, researchers are already growing insects with electronics
inside them. They're creating cyborg moths and flying beetles
that can be remotely controlled. One day, the U.S. military may
field squadrons of winged insect/machine hybrids with on-board
audio, video or chemical sensors. These cyborg insects could conduct
surveillance and reconnaissance missions on distant battlefields,
in far-off caves, or maybe even in cities closer to home, and
transmit detailed data back to their handlers at U.S. military
Today, many people fear U.S. government surveillance of email
and cell phone communications. With this program, the Pentagon
aims to exponentially increase the paranoia. Imagine a world in
which any insect fluttering past your window may be a remote-controlled
spy, packed with surveillance equipment. Even more frightening
is the prospect that such creatures could be weaponized, and the
possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with
the project, that these cyborg insects might be armed with "bio
For the past 50 years, work by the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA) – the Pentagon's blue skies research
outfit – has led to some of the most lethal weaponry in
the U.S. arsenal: from Hellfire-missile-equipped Predator drones
and stealth fighters and bombers to Tomahawk cruise missiles and
Javelin portable "fire and forget" guided missiles.
For the last several years, DARPA has funneled significant sums
of money into a very different kind of guided missile project,
its Hybrid Insect MEMS (HI-MEMS) program. This project is, according
to DARPA, "aimed at developing tightly coupled machine-insect
interfaces by placing micro-mechanical systems [MEMS] inside the
insects during the early stages of metamorphosis." Put simply,
the creation of cyborg insects: part bug, part bot.
Bugs, Bots, Borgs and Bio-Weapons
This past August, at DARPA's annual symposium – DARPATech
– HI-MEMS program manager Amit Lal, an associate professor
on leave from Cornell University, explained that his project aims
to transform "insects into unmanned air-vehicles." He
described the research this way: "[T]he HI-MEMS program seeks
to grow MEMS and electronics inside the insect pupae. The new
tissue forms around the insertions, making the bio-electronic
interface long-lasting and reliable." In other words, micro-electronics
are inserted at the pupal stage of metamorphosis so that they
can be integrated into the insects' bodies as they develop, creating
living robots that can be remotely controlled after the insect
emerges from its cocoon.
According to the latest reports, work on this project is progressing
at a rapid pace. In a recent phone interview, DARPA spokesperson
Jan Walker said, "We're focused on determining what the best
kinds of MEMS systems are; what the best MEMS system would be
for embedding; what the best time is for embedding."
This month, Rob Coppinger, writing for the aerospace trade publication
Flight International, reported on new advances announced at the
"1st US-Asian Assessment and Demonstration of Micro-Aerial
and Unmanned Ground Vehicle Technology" – a Pentagon-sponsored
conference. "In the latest work," he noted, "a
Manduca moth had its thorax truncated to reduce its mass and had
a MEMS component added where abdominal segments would have been,
during the larval stage." But, as he pointed out, Robert
Michelson, a principal research engineer, emeritus at the Georgia
Tech Research Institute, laid out "on behalf of DARPA"
some of the obstacles that remain. Among them were short insect
life-spans and the current inability to create these cyborgs outside
DARPA's professed long-term goal for the HI-MEMS program is the
creation of "insect cyborgs" capable of carrying "one
or more sensors, such as a microphone or a gas sensor, to relay
back information gathered from the target destination" –
in other words, the creation of military micro-surveillance systems.
In a recent email interview, Michelson – who has previously
worked on numerous military projects, including DARPA's "effort
to develop an ‘Entomopter' (mechanical insect-like multimode
aerial robot)" – described the types of sensor packages
envisioned, but only in a minimalist fashion, as a "[w]ide
array of active and passive devices." However in "Insect
Cyborgs: A New Frontier in Flight Control Systems," a 2007
article in the academic journal Proceedings of SPIE, Cornell researchers
noted that cyborg insects could be used as "autonomous surveillance
and reconnaissance vehicles" with on-board "[s]ensory
systems such as video and chemical."
Surveillance applications, however, may only be the beginning.
Last year, Jonathan Richards, reporting for The Times, raised
the specter of the weaponization of cyborg insects in the not-too-distant
future. As he pointed out, Rodney Brooks, the director of the
computer science and artificial intelligence lab at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, indicated that the Pentagon is striving
toward a major expansion in the use of non-traditional air power
– like unmanned aerial vehicles and cyborg insects –
in the years ahead. "There's no doubt their things will become
weaponized," he explained, "so the question [is]: should
they [be] given targeting authority?" Brooks went on to assert,
according to The Times, that it might be time to consider rewriting
international law to take the future weaponization of such "devices"
But how would one weaponize a cyborg insect? On this subject,
Robert Michelson was blunt: "Bio weapons."
Michelson wouldn't elaborate further, but any program using bio-weapons
would immediately raise major legal and ethical questions. The
1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention outlawed the manufacture
and possession of bio-weapons, of "[m]icrobial or other biological
agents, or toxins whatever their origin… that have no justification
for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes"
and of "[w]eapons, equipment or means of delivery designed
to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed
conflict." In fact, not only did President George W. Bush
claim that Iraq's supposed production and possession of biological
weapons was a justification for an invasion of that nation, but
he had previously stated, "All civilized nations reject as
intolerable the use of disease and biological weapons as instruments
of war and terror."
Reached for comment, however, DARPA's Jan Walker insisted that
her agency's focus was only on "fundamental research"
when it came to cyborg insects. Although the focus of her agency
is, in fact, distinctly on the future – the technology of
tomorrow – she refused to look down the road when it came
to weaponizing insect cyborgs or arming them with bio-weapons.
"I can't speculate on the future," was all she would
Michelson is perfectly willing to look into future, especially
on matters of cyborg insect surveillance, but on the horizon for
him are technical issues when it comes to the military use of
bug bots. "Surveillance goes on anyway by other means,"
he explained, "so a new method is not the issue. If there
are ethical or legal issues, they are ones of 'surveillance,'
not of the 'surveillance platform.'"
Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, a digital rights and civil liberties group, sees that
same future in a different light. Cyborg insects, he says, are
an order of magnitude away from today's more standard surveillance
technologies like closed circuit television. "CCTV is mostly
deployed in public and in privately owned public spaces. An insect
could easily fly into your garden or sit outside your bedroom
window," he explained. "To make matters worse, you'd
have no idea these devices were there. A CCTV camera is usually
an easily recognizable device. Robotic surveillance insects might
be harder to spot. And having to spot them wouldn't necessarily
be good for our mental health."
Does Michelson see any ethical or legal dilemmas resulting from
the future use of weaponized cyborg insects? "No, not unless
they could breed new cyborg insects, which is not possible,"
he explained. "Genetic engineering will be the ethical and
legal battleground, not cybernetics."
Battle Beetles and Hawkish Hawkmoths
Weaponized or not, moths are hardly the only cyborg insects that
may fly, creep, or crawl into the military's future arsenal. Scientists
from Arizona State University and elsewhere, working under a grant
from the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, "are rearing
beetle species at various oxygen levels to attempt to produce
beetles with greater-than-normal size and payload capacity."
Earlier this year, some of the same scientists published an article
on their DARPA-funded research titled "A Cyborg Beetle: Insect
Flight Control Through an Implantable, Tetherless Microsystem."
They explained that, by implanting "multiple inserted neural
and muscular stimulators, a visual stimulator, a polyimide assembly
and a microcontroller" in a 2 centimeter long, 1–2
gram green June beetle, they were "capable of modulating
[the insect's] flight starts, stops, throttle/lift, and turning."
They could, that is, drive an actual beetle. However, unlike the
June bug you might find on a porch screen or in a garden, these
sported on-board electronics powered by cochlear implant batteries.
DARPA-funded HI-MEMS research has also been undertaken at other
institutions across the country and around the world. For example,
in 2006, researchers at Cornell, in conjunction with scientists
at Pennsylvania State University and the Universidad de Valparaiso,
Chile, received an $8.4 million DARPA grant for work on "Insect
Cyborg Sentinels." According to a recent article in New Scientist,
a team led by one of the primary investigators on that grant,
David Stern, screened a series of video clips at a recent conference
in Tucson, Arizona demonstrating their ability to control tethered
tobacco hawkmoths through "flexible plastic probes"
implanted during the pupae stage. Simply stated, the researchers
were able to remotely control the moths-on-a-leash, manipulating
the cyborg creatures' wing speed and direction.
Cyborg insects are only the latest additions to the U.S. military's
menagerie. As defense tech-expert Noah Shachtman of Wired magazine's
Danger Room blog has reported, DARPA projects have equipped rats
with electronic equipment and remotely controlled sharks, while
the military has utilized all sorts of animals, from bomb-detecting
honeybees and "chickens used as early-warning sensors for
chemical attacks" to guard dogs and dolphins trained to hunt
mines. Additionally, he notes, the DoD's emphasis on the natural
world has led to robots that resemble dogs, monkeys that control
robotic limbs with their minds, and numerous other projects inspired
But whatever other creatures they favor, insects never seem far
from the Pentagon's dreams of the future. In fact, Shachtman reported
earlier this year that "Air Force scientists are looking
for robotic bombs that look – and act – like swarms
of bugs and birds." He went on to quote Colonel Kirk Kloeppel,
head of the Air Force Research Laboratory's munitions directorate,
who announced the Lab's interest in "bio-inspired munitions,"
in "small, autonomous" machines that would "provide
close-in [surveillance] information, in addition to killing intended
This month, researcher Robert Wood wrote in IEEE Spectrum about
what he believes was "the first flight of an insect-size
robot." After almost a decade of research, Wood and his colleagues
at the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory are now creating small
insect-like robots that will eventually be outfitted "with
onboard sensors, flight controls, and batteries… to nimbly
flit around obstacles and into places beyond human reach."
Like cyborg insect researchers, Wood is DARPA-funded. Last year,
in fact, the agency selected him as one of 24 "rising stars"
for a "young faculty awards" grant.
Asked about the relative advantages of cyborg insects compared
to mechanical bugs, Robert Michelson noted that "robotic
insects obey without innate or external influences" and "they
can be mass produced rapidly." He cautioned, however, that
they are extremely limited power-wise. Insect cyborgs, on the
other hand, "can harvest energy and continue missions of
longer duration." However, they "may be diverted from
their task by stronger influences"; must be grown to maturity
and so may not be available when needed; and, of course, are mortal
and run the risk of dying before they can be employed as needed.
The Future is Now
There is plenty of technical information about the HI-MEMS program
available in the scientific literature. And if you make inquiries,
DARPA will even direct you to some of the relevant citations.
But while it's relatively easy to learn about the optimal spots
to insert a neural stimulator in a green June beetle ("behind
the eye, in the flight control area of the insect brain")
or an electronic implant in a tobacco hawkmoth ("the main
flight powering muscles… in the dorsal-thorax"), it's
much harder to discover the likely future implications of this
sci-fi sounding research.
The "final demonstration goal" – the immediate
aim – of DARPA's HI-MEMS program "is the delivery of
an insect within five meters of a specific target located at hundred
meters away, using electronic remote control, and/or global positioning
system (GPS)." Right now, DARPA doesn't know when that might
happen. "We basically operate phase to phase," says
Walker. "So, it kind of depends on how they do in the current
phase and we'll make decisions on future phases."
DARPA refuses to examine anything but research-oriented issues.
As a result, its Pentagon-funded scientists churn out inventions
with potentially dangerous, if not deadly, implications without
ever fully considering – let alone seeking public or expert
comment on – the future ramifications of new technologies
"The people who build this equipment are always going to
say that they're just building tools, that there are legitimate
uses for them, and that it isn't their fault if the tools are
abused," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Eckersley.
"Unfortunately, we've seen that governments are more than
willing to play fast-and-loose with the legal bounds on surveillance.
Unless and until that changes, we'd urge researchers to find other
projects to work on."