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Imaginary Weapons

Posted on Nov 16, 2007
Pentagon building

James Harris and Josh Scheer

Truthdig speaks with Sharon Weinberger, whose book “Imaginary Weapons” looks into why the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars on fantastical weapons programs, some of which defy the laws of physics.

Click here to listen to this interview.


James Harris: This is Truthdig.  James Harris here with Josh Scheer.  We are talking to the author of “Imaginary Weapons,” Sharon Weinberger .  In this book, Sharon, you remind us of the vast amount of money that is spent on the technology of war.

Sharon Weinberger: Right.  We’ve had a number of books and articles, even congressional hearings over the years, about the spiraling costs of weapons technology.  Some of this goes back to the anecdotal or clichéd $200 hammers or $600 toilet seats, or whatever those numbers were.  Some of those concerns were very real and some of them were overplayed, but the core concern was that our weapons that we were investing in were spiraling out of control in cost.  And particularly with the end of the Cold War, there were a number of questions being raised about whether we needed some of the technologies more appropriate for the Cold War in the current environment.  My book wanted to look at this but from a slightly different angle in that it came out of conversations with colleagues about a smaller but also important tendency you see in some Pentagon and national security circles, which is, the problem of investing in technologies that are fantastical or beyond even the laws of physics, or things that have been so ridiculous that they’ve been tried before, discarded, or laughed at.  So the particular weapon I focused on was this mythical isomer bomb, this next-generation, future weapon that had been sort of bandied about the national laboratories and the national security institutions for a number of decades, looked at, maybe explored, then laughed at and discarded.  And the story I focused on was an incarnation of this isomer bomb around 2003 in the Pentagon and how it got millions of dollars in funding and what took place for that to happen.

Harris: So the isomer is an example of the inflated spending across the board.


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Weinberger: Exactly.  It was to look at one, perhaps smaller, but also frightening case in that it sort of reached the highest levels of the Pentagon.  Also, it illustrated for me this sort of underworld you sometimes get in the Pentagon and national security institutions where you could have a small group of die-hard supporters who, no matter how ridiculous their cause, are able to get funding, and in some cases a lot of funding.  And you see this in the billions of dollars in some incarnations of missile defense and you see it in the tens of millions of dollars in the case of the isomer bomb.  What links the two is that the people who attach themselves to these far-fetched ideas tend to hop from one project to the next.  So it might be a fantastical laser for missile defense in one decade, and the next decade it’s the isomer bomb, and the next decade it’s something even more ridiculous.

Josh Scheer: Sharon, ... I want to talk about DARPA and I want to know what your take on them is, and kind of a brief history for the listener.

Weinberger: In fact, this is a good time to start talking about DARPA.  DARPA, of course, stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has altered names between ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and DARPA, which is its current name.  Basically, DARPA, in 2008, will celebrate its 50th anniversary.  Like a lot of changes in our national security institutions, it arose from the idea of technological surprise, i.e. that 50 years ago the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, which really surprised the national security institutions in the United States and heralded a lot of energy on action.  “How can we make sure that our science and technology base is prepared for these sorts of threats?”  So you had the creation of DARPA, you had the creation of NASA, you had a greater focus on science and technology.  This issue is, 50 years later, we often hear about the successes of DARPA, and there are a lot of successes in the military sphere as well as in the civilian.  I think most often you’ll hear about the Internet.  You’ll hear about microelectronics, which was sponsored by DARPA.  What you don’t hear so much about is the failures.  Which is not to say that DARPA is a failure.  By no means is it a failure.  But we need to learn the lessons from both sides, from the successes and the failures.

Scheer: We see the major successes in civilian life such as the Internet or the microchip and things like that.  But isn’t that like a lot of directed research for the government where it helps in a way that wasn’t supposed to help?  What are the failures?  What are the major failures for DARPA?

Weinberger: It’s a step backwards.  Part of DARPA’s legacy is, it’s supposed to be able to fail, meaning, at any one time, they might be investing in tens, dozens or hundreds of projects.  And the idea is, in the military services, the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, they need to invest.  They can tolerate some degree of risk, but they’re not as able—they have more scrutiny, oversights.  The idea is, “Suppose we centralize our research development budget in one agency, give them more flexibility so that they can pursue a lot of projects.”  As to what the failures are, there are many failures DARPA admits to.  UAVs, Unmanned Air Vehicles, before we had the “successes” that are flying today, there were many decades of failures.  To some extent you need failure to get to success.  If you want to talk about more ambiguous legacies, you don’t see so much DARPA emphasizing its role in missile defense, in antiballistic missile defense.  And this is not to say that all missile defense programs are failures, but, certainly, this is one of the more controversial areas of weapons technology, and it’s a much more ambiguous legacy.  So when you see DARPA directors get up at conferences, they tend not to emphasize missile defense in their legacy.

Scheer: Do they talk about the Internet a lot?

Weinberger: Yes.  You will hear about the Internet a lot.  In fact, DARPA should be given a lot of credit for the Internet, as should the scientists who worked on it, as should the National Science Foundation.  But DARPA certainly was a leading actor in that.

Scheer: But with something like the Internet, it’s just funny when you hear things like that ... James, when you hear things like that, but—.  You hear about the Internet.  But that wasn’t what it was intended to do, right?  The blogosphere?  It wasn’t supposed to be e-mail.  It was supposed to be a way of connecting spies?  Or connecting troops?

Weinberger: Well, it had military applications, and that is the beauty of DARPA and the beauty of all basic science and technology.  The idea is you’re supporting a lot of projects that may have applications in the civilian realm or in the military realm but are completely unexpected.  Another good example of that, and one that’s had military support, is GPS, the Global Positioning System .

Scheer: Mm-hmm.

Weinberger:  Again, it was developed for military needs, is still used by the military, but has enormous civilian benefit. 

Scheer: Definitely.

Weinberger: That is in fact the hope of DARPA and part of the ongoing legacy debate: How much should they purposefully be trying to get things into the civilian sphere, and how much should they be acted on as spin-offs?

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By purplewolf, December 7, 2007 at 11:41 am Link to this comment

The United States spends more money per year on the war machine than all of the other countries on the earth combined. Just think how much good all that wasted money and effort on the wars and weapons could actually do to solving the problems the whole world faces. If even 1 percent of that was put to a positive use rather than what it now is the difference would be obvious. Sounds like the shades of paranoia have run out of control and have made the whole world the enemy of the United States

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By SteveL, December 6, 2007 at 2:34 pm Link to this comment

What other countries are wasting their money on these kind of things?  Note that even Iran does weapons programs on a cost/benefit basis.

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By purplewolf, December 5, 2007 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

Imaginary weapons must now be paid for with imaginary money!

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By nils cognizant, November 24, 2007 at 4:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think people are afraid to comment on these dark programs. The project designers might want to raise their sights, though. There are cheap strategic advantages which can be gained through employment of technologies meant to bring contentment to unstable populations. One example I’ve dreamed up is a small, cheap 10-inch laptop computer operating off Linux and loaded with specialized modules: alternative farming for profit, high-production fishfarming strategies for areas requiring coral-reef protection, etc. The specialized modules will include video instructional lectures in the local language and will be aware of resources which are available locally.

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By rodney, November 22, 2007 at 12:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s nothing but a bunch of drunkin cowboys sitting around thinking of new and better ways to kill and destroy society as if they haven’t already discovered enough ways. Just another way to steal and loot our taxpayers dollars without accountability. If we spent the money we spend on education instead killing and incarcerating,then maybe we would have to kill and incarcerate. Oh I totally forgot about imperealism,capitalism,colonialism,greed,power,and control.

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By Douglas Chalmers, November 20, 2007 at 6:01 am Link to this comment

Isomers? Sounds like some kind of hairspray, ha ha. Oh, you mean the “Hafnium bomb” ......well, that’s different!

But isn’t it amazing how what can be described as “devastating” in another country’s hands is blithely seen as “useful” if it is developed by the USA?!?!

And the mad scientists are demanding to do whatever they wish by making excuses about a free country while the critics are trying to “fight the science in the press because they don’t like the politics”.......

Quote: “Hafnium could be used to build a more powerful bomb or, more to the point of what the military was looking for, a small bomb with a huge bang, the believers argued. And even better, building a weapon using hafnium wouldn’t violate internationally negotiated restrictions on testing nuclear weapons or congressional limits on developing new nuclear weapons. Because it wouldn’t involve splitting atoms, a hafnium bomb would be a totally new class of weapon…....

“It sure would make a great dirty bomb.”.......

A hafnium bomb, even if it didn’t leave radioactive fallout, still wouldn’t be like an ordinary bomb because, along with an explosive force, it would emit intense, penetrating gamma rays. According to Hill Roberts, a scientist at SRS Technologies in Huntsville, Ala., a gamma-ray bomb is appealing to some because gamma rays can pass through solid material and penetrate living tissue. Theoretically, an energetic gamma-ray burst could penetrate bunkers, killing whatever was inside—be it humans or anthrax stockpiles. Putting it more bluntly, he said, “Tissue turns to goo.”.......

Hafnium bombs could be loaded in artillery shells, according to a copy of the briefing slides, or they could be used in the Pentagon’s missile defense systems to knock incoming ballistic missiles out of the air. He encapsulated his vision of the program in a startling PowerPoint slide: a small hafnium hand grenade with a pullout ring and a caption that read, “Miniature bomb. Explosive yield, 2 KT [kilotons]. Size, 5-inch diameter.” That would be an explosion about one-seventh the power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima in 1945…...”

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