The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In the future, the power of magnetism will be harnessed to make today’s high explosives seem feeble, “guided bullets” will put the current crop of snipers to shame, and new multi-purpose missiles will strike targets in a flash from high-flying drones. At least, that’s part of the Pentagon’s battlefield vision of tomorrow’s tomorrow.
Ordinarily, planning for the future is not a US government forte. A mere glance at the national debt, now around $14 trillion and climbing, or two recent studies showing how China’s green technology investments have outpaced US efforts should drive home that fact. But one government agency is always forward-looking:the Department of Defense’s blue skies research branch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Born in the wake of an American panic over the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, DARPA set to work keeping the Pentagon ahead of potential adversaries on the technology front. It counts the Internet and the Global Positioning System among its triumphs, and psychic spying and a mechanical elephant designed for use in the jungles of Southeast Asia among its many failures. It also boasts a long legacy when it comes to creating and enhancing lethal technologies, including M-16 rifles, Predator drones, stealth fighters, Tomahawk cruise missiles and B-52 bombers, which have been employed in conflicts across the globe.
Today, DARPA is carrying on that more than half-century-old tradition through a host of programs designed with war, death and destruction in mind. Wielding a budget of about $3 billion a year and investing heavily in futuristic weaponry and other military technology, it is undoubtedly helping to fuel the arms races of 2020 and 2030. While the United States seems content to let China sprint ahead in green technology, a number of its future weapons appear to be designed with a country like China in mind.
All of its planning is, however, shrouded in remarkable secrecy. Make inquiries about any of the weapons systems it’s exploring and a barrage of excuses for telling you next to nothing pour forth—a program is between managers, or classified, or only now in the process of awarding its contracts. DARPA spokespeople and project managers even prefer not to clarify or explain publicly available information. Still, it’s possible to offer a sketch of some of the future weaponry the Pentagon has in development, and in the process glimpse what messages it’s sending to other nations around the world.
Mayhem Without the “Y”
Even in military culture, where arcane, clunky or sometimes witty acronyms are a dime a dozen, DARPA projects stand out. Sometimes it almost seems as if the agency comes up with a particularly bad-ass name first and then creates a weapons system to suit. Take as an example the Magneto Hydrodynamic Explosive Munition or—wait for it—MAHEM.