At this time of intense debate within academia over race, gender, inequality, and our vanishing democracy, one might expect serious engagement with the moral and ethical implications of university-conducted war research. Yet, despite a massive increase in Pentagon support for military-oriented campus research, no such debate exists. Ever since many universities suspended their ties with the Department of Defense in the 1960s and ’70s—often in response to impassioned anti-war protests—concern over such ties has largely disappeared. But now, with the military expanding its footprint on campus and an ever-increasing share of the nation’s resources being devoted to war preparation, it is time to end this silence and start a rigorous debate on the ethics of university-conducted military research.
The Pentagon has, of course, long subsidized research on basic and applied sciences at major US universities in order to ensure access to the latest developments in military-relevant fields. But most of these funds have been channeled to a dozen or so “federally funded research and development centers” (FFRDCs) that are typically housed in restricted, off-campus facilities. Many of these centers were established or significantly expanded in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when their university hosts sought to better segregate classified military research from ordinary (and sometimes rowdy) campus life. But now, to obtain expertise in cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and hypersonics, the military services seek a renewed presence back on campus, where their personnel can work alongside leading academic innovators.
The military’s quest for a greater campus presence is being driven by perceived changes in the nature of warfare. Whereas this decade’s wars, Pentagon officials believe, will still largely be determined by superiority in conventional firepower—like the planes, tanks, missiles, and artillery now dominating the battlefield in Ukraine—future conflicts will be decided by superior command of AI and other emerging technologies. But while they can rely on favored military contractors, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, to supply the needed firepower for today’s wars, they must turn to academic scientists for the underlying technologies of tomorrow’s weaponry.
Success in future wars requires “that we have access to talent,” Secretary of the Army Mark Esper (later secretary of defense) told Congress in 2018. Not only in the hard sciences, but also “talent that can help us think about the future strategic environment, thinking in the 2030s-2040s.” To gain such access, he avowed, “it’s the proximity to innovation, it’s proximity to academia,” that will prove essential.
Consistent with this outlook, the Department of Defense has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve this “proximity to academia.” These initiatives include, for example, the Joint University Microelectronics Program (JUMP), launched in 2018 with $200 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s in-house research organization. JUMP, we are told, is intended to marshal the expertise of academic institutions “to drive a new wave of fundamental research with the potential to deliver the disruptive microelectronics-based technologies required by the Department of Defense and national security in the 2025-2030 timeframe.”
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JUMP works by funding research hubs at selected universities and providing them with the wherewithal to support work both by resident faculty and scientists from other universities. One such center is ASCENT, or the Applications and Systems driven Center for Energy-Efficient Integrated Nanotechnologies. Located at the University of Notre Dame, ASCENT also involves participation by faculty from Cornell, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Purdue, Stanford, and several campuses of the University of California.
Another such mega-project is the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics (UCAH), a five-year, $100 million program funded by the Pentagon’s Joint Hypersonics Transition office and overseen by the Texas A&M University Engineering Experiment Station. Like the JUMP program, UCAH works by providing grants to selected university research centers, which may then partner with other universities. “The consortium’s mission,” Texas A&M notes, “is to serve the US Department of Defense (DOD)…by mobilizing and leveraging the academic community and its partners to deliver time-sensitive applied solutions to the DOD-defined research and prototype projects.”
As one example of such efforts, the University of Virginia was awarded a $4.5 million UCAH grant last October to undertake advanced work on advanced hypersonic propulsion systems. According to the Pentagon, this work will “focus on engine design, maneuverability control, and operational resiliency,” with the ultimate goal of conducting “an integrated scramjet ground test” on an advanced projectile. Joining UVA in this effort are the University of Minnesota, North Carolina State University, and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
These programs, and others like them, are intended to spur academic research in advanced technologies of interest to the military and to bolster the Pentagon’s links to key academic innovators. But this is just one aspect of the military’s pursuit of academic know-how in critical fields. To better gain access to the essential “talent,” the armed services have sought to establish a physical presence on campus, allowing their personnel direct access to university labs and classrooms.
The Pursuit of AI Talent
Largely propelling this drive for direct academic access is the Pentagon’s belief that superior command of AI will prove essential for success in future conflicts. “AI will transform all aspects of military affairs,” the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence declared in its Final Report of February 2021. “In the future, warfare will pit algorithm against algorithm.”
Algorithms—the computer programs that govern an ever-expanding range of civilian and military devices—do not roll off industrial assembly lines as do tanks, planes, and missiles. Rather, they are fashioned by computer scientists at universities and the innovative start-ups they have installed on academia’s periphery. To gain access to these innovators and the fruits of their labor, the Army and Air Force have established operating units at several universities, including MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas at Austin.
Prominent among these centers is the Air Force–MIT AI Accelerator, established in 2019 with $15 million in Air Force funding. The US military has, of course, long subsidized advanced weapons research at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, an FFRDC located in Lexington, Mass. But the AI Accelerator is very different: It’s located on MIT’s main campus in Cambridge and involves active participation by Air Force personnel in joint projects with faculty and students. In this manner, the university states, “a multidisciplinary team of embedded officers and enlisted Airmen join MIT faculty, researchers, and students to tackle some of the most difficult challenges facing our nation and the Department of the Air Force” (emphasis added). Since when has it been necessary to “embed” serving military personnel on American university campuses?
“This partnership is incredibly important to the Department,” said Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Big. Gen. David Allvin during a March 2021 visit to the Accelerator. “MIT is world-renowned for its leading-edge RDT&E [research, development, test and engineering] and is home to some of the best AI talent on the planet. Together with our Airmen, MIT is accelerating the delivery of game-changing AI capabilities.”
To acquire this sort of access for its own personnel, the US Army established an “accelerator” of its own at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon has long been known for its pioneering work in computer science and robotics, and so was deemed a natural site to house the Army’s AI Task Force. Like their Air Force counterparts at MIT, Army personnel attached to the Task Force receive training in computer science and collaborate with CMU faculty and students in developing advanced algorithms for the military.
In addition to producing software for the military, the AI Task Force at CMU has another critical objective: to train military personnel to wield AI applications in future conflicts. In August 2020, the task force inaugurated its first class of “Army AI Scholars”—serving officers who undertake a two-year master’s program in computer sciences. “We must recruit and mentor exceptional talent who will lead the way in using AI to harness data, making our war fighting and business systems faster, more effective and less expensive,” said the Task Force director, Brig. Gen. Matthew Easley, at the program’s launch.
The Army-Austin Connection
One of the most important applications of AI, in the Pentagon’s view, is in the development and deployment of autonomous weapons systems, or armed drones. Such weapons, called “killer robots” by critics, are expected to play an ever-increasing role in warfare as human-crewed weapons become ever-more vulnerable and expensive. (This trend has already become evident in the Ukraine conflict, where both sides have come to rely on armed drones to locate and attack enemy assets.) All of the military services are accelerating their pursuit of the underlying technologies—and, once again, are turning to university laboratories for the necessary expertise.
An outstanding example of this drive is the relationship between the Army Future Command (AFC) and the University of Texas at Austin. Created in 2018 at Esper’s behest, the Futures Command is responsible for overseeing the development of the Army’s future weapons systems, many of which are expected to be capable of autonomous operation. To ensure that AFC personnel would enjoy ready access to academic talent in this field, Esper chose to locate the new command at UT-Austin, rather than at an existing Army base, as would normally be the case for a major organization of this sort.
As part of its relationship with UT-Austin, the Futures Command occupies space in a university-owned office building and operates at several campus laboratories. In its most important undertaking on campus, the command joined the university in creating the Robotics Center of Excellence, now located at the former Anna Hiss Gymnasium. At the center, an AFC publication indicates, “professors and students are working diligently to expand and strengthen intelligent abilities and systems ranging from the robotic detection of changes in terrain to next-generation network defenses against adversarial attacks.”
As their joint inventions more closely come to resemble possible combat devices, UT and Army personnel will have an opportunity to test their innovations at another major Army-academic partnership: the George H.W. Bush Combat Development Complex at Texas A&M’s Bryan, Texas, campus. Under a five-year, $65 million cooperative agreement with the Futures Command, Texas A&M is developing a 2,000-acre “Innovation Proving Ground” allowing tests of autonomous weapons under battlefield-like conditions. To an outside observer, this seems as far from ordinary academic research as can be imagined.
Like the Army, the Navy and Air Force have also sought academic assistance in the development of autonomous systems. Last September, for example, the Navy awarded the University of Maine at Orono a $9.5 contract for the development of unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), or drone warships. Research on such vessels is considered essential by the Navy as it seeks to replace crewed vessels in high-risk operations against future adversaries, especially China and Russia. As its contribution to this effort, UMaine will “design, fabricate, and evaluate a large-scale USV using advanced manufacturing processes” by September 2025.
For help in developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drone aircraft, the Air Force has turned to the University of Dayton, among other institutions. In November 2021, the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) was awarded an $88 million contract for its “Soaring Otter” program in autonomous aircraft technology. According to the university, UDRI researchers “will support the Air Force in its quest to increase its capabilities in autonomy” by exploiting such advanced technologies as “artificial intelligence, neural networks, neuromorphic computing, and data exploitation.”
Launching a Critical Debate
The university alliances described above represent but a small fraction of the many programs initiated by the Department of Defense in its ongoing drive to exploit academic know-how in the development of future weapons. The JUMP and UCAH programs, for example, incorporate many more institutions than those identified above. Together, these programs constitute a giant web of Pentagon-academic linkages, stretching from Washington, D.C. to colleges and universities all across the United States.
In virtually every one of these alliances, the installation on campus of Pentagon-affiliated research projects has been welcomed by university administrators with open arms. “This collaboration is very much in line with MIT’s core value of service to the nation,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice-president for research, when announcing the establishment of the Air Force-MIT AI Accelerator. “MIT researchers who choose to participate will bring state-of-the-art expertise in AI to advance Air Force mission areas.”
In no case, however, is it possible to detect evidence of serious discussion among faculty, staff, and students over the appropriateness of hosting war-oriented research and training on campus. This despite the fact that vital issues of violence and conflict are never far from campus debate these days—whether it be over race hatred, gun possession, gender and sexual abuse, or right-wing extremism. Why, then, not a debate over the ethics of university-conducted war research?
During the Vietnam War era and in the years that followed, American universities experienced intense debates over war-oriented campus research, with many faculty and students insisting that such endeavors contradicted the university’s fundamental commitment to the open, life-affirming pursuit of knowledge. Are these concerns not equally valid today, with the militaries of this country and so many others gearing up for full-scale, endless war?
Surely, any academic community that values free and open discussion about the overarching goals of our universities should welcome an inquiry of this sort. A healthy debate on this topic might raise many key questions: What is the nature and extent of Pentagon-funded research and training on any given campus? To what extent does this entail classified research, whose results cannot be made public? Are campus administrators being fully transparent about the nature of the university’s ties with the Pentagon? What about the moral and ethical dimensions of Pentagon-funded research: Should university laboratories be used to develop weapons of war? These questions demand an airing on every campus with Pentagon-funded research projects.
Given the magnitude of the Pentagon’s drive to exploit the scientific and technical resources of America’s great universities and the troubling questions this engenders, The Nation calls on faculty, students, and staff at these institutions to demand transparency from administrators on all campus-Pentagon relationships and to undertake a vigorous debate on the moral and ethical appropriateness of these linkages. This will, no doubt, provoke resistance from those who believe that such ties should be encouraged in this time of great-power competition and conflict, but it will also allow for the expression of legitimate concerns about university involvement in high-tech war-making.
With our society in such great need for progress on climate change, educational achievement, pandemic prevention, and infrastructure development, among other priorities, the investment of so much of our scientific know-how in weapons design could well constitute a perversion of the university’s true social purpose.