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The U.S. Military’s Mad Scientists’ Shopping List

Contract requests shed light on what DARPA researchers want for “strategic technological surprises.”

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Whenever the Pentagon wants to push the envelope of sci-fi ready technological research, the mission often falls to DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA has been around for more than 60 years, when the Soviet Union lit a fire under the collective U.S. government’s foggy bottom by launching the first unmanned satellite, Sputnik, into space in 1957.

“[F]rom that time forward, [DARPA] would be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises,” the agency’s website says.

Known affectionately as the U.S. government’s mad scientists, DARPA takes on long-shot, high-risk-high-reward projects. Or, as the agency puts it, the agency “reaches for transformational change instead of incremental advances.”

Some of the historical successes attributed to DARPA include the ARPANET, a precursor to the internet; stealth technology and early drone research, according to Sharon Weinberger, author of a book about DARPA called The Imagineers Of War. Some failures, Weinberger told NPR, include billions spent on a failed space-plane project and bold probes at artificial intelligence back in the 1980s.

Since it lives out on the hairy edge, much of what DARPA does is classified, and that top secret mystique has bled into pop culture for decades. (Recall that 20 years ago, the protagonist’s initial mission in the 1998 Playstation game “Metal Gear Solid” was to rescue the head of DARPA from a militant group. And of course, shadowy DARPA officials showed up in The X Files.)

But you know what absolutely kills the mystique of government-mandated secrecy? Government-mandated contracting regulations. Specifically, those that require federal agencies, even secretive ones, to publicize their solicitations online.

As DARPA head Steven Walker told lawmakers in March, the agency “does not perform its engineering alchemy in isolation. It works within an interlocking ecosystem of diverse collaborators that includes academic, corporate and governmental partners with the collective goal to create innovative strategic opportunities and novel tactical options.”

And it’s the contracts advertised to the private industry that can provide unusual insight into what DARPA might be up to at any given time, or at least the kind of themes or technology that appear to be the focus of the agency’s time and money.

Here’s just some of what DARPA has been interested in so far this year:

All Kinds of Ideas About Future Warfare

Here’s the full solicitation summary for this one: “The Tactical Technology Office [TTO] of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is soliciting executive summaries, proposal abstracts and proposals for applied research, advanced technology development, and platform demonstrations that aim to enable disruptive capabilities for future warfare.”

That’s it. A lot of important-sounding words without much description. Luckily, the solicitation comes with a 35-page addendum that clarifies at least some of the stuff DARPA wants – and it’s basically new tech for virtually every kind of warfighting in the future.

For instance, “TTO seeks undeterrable air presence in any environment and theater, from permissive to highly contested, at a time of our choosing.” The solicitation says that stealth tech “may be approaching physical limits” and the military needs to find an alternative to air dominance. What kind of alternative? That’s what DARPA is hoping the private sector can help figure out — whether it’s through hypersonic weapons or flooding the zone with low-cost drone swarms.

On the ground, DAPRA’s TTO office is looking to “break the symmetry of ground combat through the application of numerous autonomous agents” to help protect U.S. personnel in radically new ways. Here the solicitation name-drops the sci-fi satire “Starship Troopers” when trying to describe the kind of “hypermobility and hyper lethality for small units” that may be one way to achieve TTO’s goal.

The solicitation goes on to cover maritime environments (maybe more underwater drones?) and the new fighting domain in space (more, smaller satellites?).

Who’s Who in a Firefight, Robot?

One big problem autonomous systems are going to have as they increasingly invade the battlefield is how they’re going to tell friend from foe on the ground. So DARPA is looking to outside vendors to “assess the feasibility and effectiveness of integrating unmanned systems, sensor technologies, and advanced autonomy algorithms to enable improved techniques for rapidly discriminating hostile intent and filtering out threats in complex urban environments.”

“Reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition within urban terrain remains a vexing problem for the U.S. military. Urban spaces can mask threat personnel as they move and obscure threats as they approach. Additionally, the urban environment includes civilians who must be protected, challenging the military’s ability to claim Positive Identification (PID) of combatants,” the solicitation says. The URSA [Urban Reconnaissance through Supervised Autonomy] program seeks to overcome the complexity of the urban environment by combining new knowledge about human behaviors, autonomy algorithms, integrated sensors, multiple sensor modalities, and measurable human responses to discriminate the subtle differences between belligerents and innocent bystanders. DARPA believes that through an autonomous, active process of accumulating and filtering data from multiple sources and sensing modalities, it will be possible to rapidly and reliably discriminate between threats and non-combatants.”

Combining Three Potentially Terrifying Technologies Into One Project

What do you get when you combine automation, “novel genome editing tools,” and machine learning into a single project focused on biomechanics? The correct answer is “one broken beaker away from the start to about three dozen horror movie plots.” The other correct answer is DARPA’s “Living Foundries: 1000 Molecules” program.

The program, as described on DARPA’s website, is meant to “significantly decrease the cost, improve the scalability, and expand the complexity of engineered systems to biomanufacturing.” The work has “defense-relevant applications,” the agency says. But before we again go down the super-soldier path, DARPA appears more focused on “industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, coatings, and adhesives “that can be customized to continuously evolving [Department of Defense] needs while ensuring continued leadership of the United States in the rapidly evolving field of synthetic biology.”

In May this year, DARPA awarded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology an $11 million “cost-reimbursement modification” to a prior contract that involved the institute’s work on the 1000 Molecules program.

The “Gremlins” Program

At the risk of dropping yet another pop culture reference in this column, DARPA’s “Gremlins” program is not, I repeat not, an effort to feed Gremlins after midnight to see what happens. Rather, it’s described by DAPRA as the development of a system that would allow the military launch and then recover multiple drones in mid-air from a larger aircraft.

“Safety, reliability, and affordability are the key objectives for the system, which would launch groups of UASs from multiple types of military aircraft while out of range from adversary defenses,” DARPA announced after a successful test flight in Arizona in May. “Once gremlins complete their mission, a C-130 transport aircraft would retrieve them in the air and carry them home, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.

In April, DARPA awarded an Alabama company $32 million for work on the final phase of the program.

DARPA in Space: Blackjack

This column has previously covered what national security experts believe is the coming space conflict and what it will look like: mainly, an adversary trying to take out American satellites. “Space is just another area of operations, just like an enemy will try to attack our supply lines… they’re going to attack our eyes and ears,” retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Latiff said then.

Read: What the Coming Space Conflict Will Really Look Like

DARPA, it would seem, agrees.

“In the increasingly contested space environment, these exquisite, costly, and monolithic systems have become vulnerable targets that would take years to replace if degraded or destroyed and their long development schedules preclude orbital systems that are responsive to new threats,” the agency said in a contract announcement in April for a program called Blackjack.

Blackjack could be the Pentagon’s backup plan. Blackjack aims to see if it’s possible to use a bunch of less-costly satellites in a “constellation” to maintain the “critical technical elements for building a global high-speed network backbone in low earth orbit (LEO) that enables highly networked, resilient, and persistent DoD [Department of Defense] payloads that provide infinite over the horizon sensing, signals, and communication, and hold the ground, surface, and air domains in global constant custody.”

DARPA’s announcement says that the program could require anywhere from 60 to 200 satellites, each costing (hopefully) less than $6 million, including launch expenses.

Read: Another Star Wars Folly? Lawmaker Says “We’ve Been Here Before”

That’s just a snapshot of the projects DARPA is working on publicly. Who knows what’s going on behind all those “special access” doors.

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.