Drone warfare? Thank Pentagon’s mysterious DARPA agency

Virtually anyone who reads news or buys clothes or books on the Internet has the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to thank for it. The agency, known as DARPA, created what became the Internet as a way for missile sites to communicate with each other during a possible nuclear war.

DARPA has led the charge, for both good and ill, in finding ways to locate and kill people, author Sharon Weinberger shows in her excellent The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World (Knopf, 372 pp., ***½ out of four stars).

Since its creation by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958, DARPA’s role has shifted with the passions of the times. At first, it competed with NASA as the United States rushed to catch up with the Soviet Union after the launch of the satellite Sputnik. Then it shifted to new technologies and weapons for the Vietnam War. Now it looks for ways to counter the growth of China’s military and the threat of terrorism.

Weinberger, an editor at the The Intercept, a website focusing on intelligence issues, has cracked much of the secrecy that surrounds DARPA. Through official sources and interviews, she has put on the record many of the classified and hidden parts of DARPA’s record, including some of the agency’s embarrassing failures.

It was DARPA that gave the U.S. military napalm, the flammable gel responsible for an untold number of deaths in Vietnam, and Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant that poised Vietnamese civilians and U.S. troops alike.

“Agent Orange,” Weinberger writes, “became synonymous with the entire chemical defoliation program and, for many people, symbolic of the flawed war effort.”

From the failure of Vietnam came one of DARPA’s main contributions to modern warfare — the unmanned drone aircraft. Weinberger is especially deft in tracing how drones went from their early days in spotting and tracking Viet Cong fighters in the jungle to today, where they are part of the foundation of modern warfare. The U.S. anti-terror fight would be lost without them.

Other DARPA victories include the development of “stealth” aircraft invisible to enemy radar. The stealth program, known within the agency as Have Blue, helped save DARPA from extinction, Weinberger writes, and gave DARPA the big research victory it needed to justify its existence.

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