The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World. Sharon Weinberger. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2017.
“Is it a genius factory? Is it a government boondoggle? A refuge for crackpots?”
These questions guide Sharon Weinberger in her history of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency more commonly known by their acronym—DARPA. She doesn’t quite come up with an answer. The best approximation is probably all of the above, and she admits as much toward the end of her book, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World. Weinberger is an executive editor at Foreign Policy and has made her career in investigative journalism focusing on national security. The book is a fascinating and thorough read and offers a thorough investigation into one of the Pentagon’s most shadowy offices.
DARPA’s most famous creation was, and still is, the Internet. It was consummated in 1969 with a two-letter message sent from a researcher at the University of California Los Angeles to another researcher at the Stanford Research Institute—“Lo,” because the network crashed before it could send the next three letters, “gin.” Originally conceived as a multi-nodal network that would be resilient in the aftermath of a Soviet nuclear strike, ARPANET, as it was known, would not find a real military use for years.
But the agency also had a host of other famous (and infamous) creations. Ten years before the before they were linking computers in California, DARPA was founded as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1958 by a Department of Defense Directive to spur U.S. space research after the shock of the Soviet Sputnik launch in 1957. In a bureaucratic move, the name was changed to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at the end of the Vietnam War. The addition of an extra letter to the agency’s acronym changed little except the mood of the director, who thought the new name “sounded like a dog food.”
Early DARPA projects focused on rocket and missile technology—the Saturn V rocket that took U.S. astronauts to space started as a DARPA program that harnessed the knowledge of ex-Nazi rocket scientists. Another early success was the CORONA program that delivered the first satellite imagery in canisters of film dropped from space. But in the 1960s the Vietnam War came to dominate DARPA programming. The agency started Project AGILE—which lasted for thirteen years and included work on everything from the M-16 rifle, to psychological warfare and mind control, to a wall of sensors in the jungle hundreds of miles long. It was under the umbrella of AGILE that DARPA developed the infamous Agent Orange defoliant that was sprayed over vast areas of Vietnamese jungle and still causes health problems among American and Vietnamese veterans and civilians. Decades ahead of their time, they developed the compact turbofan engine—intended for a jetpack—that would eventually power all U.S. cruise missiles. And DARPA also developed an unmanned helicopter to hunt the Vietcong—the QH-50, a predecessor of today’s unmanned aerial vehicles.
Weinberger’s book mostly draws on interviews with officials and the former directors of DARPA, supplementing the interviews with examination of their personal papers. Her approach melds oral history with hard documents—some obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on the shadowy organization. But the reliance on interviews lends the story a cavalier tone that seems to be colored with a romantic nostalgia for the old days exaggerated by the intervening years. In her narrative, DARPA comes across as an institution run by people who have very human conflicts and passions that shaped the institution’s priorities and sometimes the American science agenda. Her writing is lively and peppered with anecdotes conveying the personalities at the agency. She even bakes some humor into her treatment of the DARPA’s bureaucratic fights in the beltway jungle. Here Weinberger serves the reader stories of the backroom deals and bureaucratic slights of hand that kept the agency alive. They were even adept at naming their work into obscurity—“The Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program, or LRRDPP, an unpronounceable acronym tailor made not to appear in a Washington Post headline or be spotted by an eagle-eyed congressional staffer.” In another anecdote, DARPA circumvented Congressional oversight of a construction project by adding a trailer hitch to the building and classifying it as “temporary.”
…the reliance on interviews lends the story a cavalier tone that seems to be colored with a romantic nostalgia for the old days…
Weinberger’s most interesting argument is how DARPA was responsible for the precision-strike revolution in the 1980s, but this claim is left largely unexplained. She doesn’t seem particularly interested in unpacking the dramatic effect this had on the Army during that time. In her telling, DARPA was searching for a mission in the wake of the Vietnam War, and its leaders believed the technology they developed for counterinsurgency could be reapplied to the Soviet threat in Europe. She quotes a former DARPA official on the U.S. military’s 1982 AirLand Battle doctrine: “ARPA gets 60 to 70 percent credit for the technologies that were used to implement it.” But, disappointingly, Weinberger moves on quickly from this argument and leaves the reader wondering exactly which DARPA technologies are responsible for inspiring the bulk of the services’ Cold War doctrine.
Certainly, DARPA was fundamental in developing many of the technological components underlying the precision strike revolution, but DARPA officials seem to give themselves too much credit. Their Assault Breaker project eventually led to the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), stealth aircraft like the F-117 Nighthawk, the fusion of sensors and improved computing power, and independently targeted submunitions.
But the military’s changing doctrine was more reinvention in the post-Vietnam era and response to perceived Soviet advantages and observations from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War than doctrine driven by technology. The changing doctrine was also driven by specific personalities in the Army like General William E. Depuy. Often considered the father of AirLand Battle, Depuy helped set conditions for it during his tenure as the first commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (though it was not published until several years after his departure). Dupuy and others helped develop new concepts that leveraged better training and higher quality personnel and more offensive action along with new technology to offset to new assessments that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact had significant overmatch in conventional forces. This emerging Army doctrine was leveraging new technology for overmatch but the relationship was not causal. Also, many of the technology seen as important to the emerging doctrine was not ready until the 1990s.
Weinberger’s argument seems to suggest the technology came before the doctrine and leaders adapted emerging concepts to fit new DARPA projects. She seems to have internalized a longstanding view of DARPA officials, that in almost every case of new combat systems, the science came before the requirement and when proffered to the military they often preferred to fight with the gear and equipment to which they were accustomed. In the case of AirLand Battle, the relationship between technological and doctrinal developments was more synergistic than the norm but the key drivers of change were much deeper than DARPAs Assault Breaker Project.
A glaring issue with Weinberger’s book is the title, The Untold Story. In 2015, Annie Jacobsen published The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and recognized with awards from the Washington Post and Boston Globe. Weinberger’s project took over a decade and includes a wealth of material unavailable to Jacobsen, but she can’t claim to be the first to tell DARPA’s story and should have known about Jacobsen’s book, which is not mentioned in her selected bibliography. But these books complement each other, and their commercial success is a testament to their timeliness and the public appetite for books on DARPA. There seems to be an insatiable appetite for books about the dark and secret corners of the U.S. government—if not for the secrecy a history of DARPA might read much like any other large, government research agency.
The Imagineers of War is an enthralling read. Weinberger’s journalistic style brings the Pentagon bureaucracy to life, and the story has plenty of material for her to work with. There are suitcases full of cash, secret airplanes, and a whole chapter on failed mind-control experiments that keep the pages turning. But a more critical reader can see the struggle of an institution constantly fighting to innovate and stay relevant. As a case study for designing an organization for radical innovation, DARPA gets mixed reviews. As Weinberger summarizes in her epilogue, “For every management lesson DARPA might hold there is a counter lesson.” There were big successes and big failures—public and private. Even at the height of the Reagan-era build up when they “were spending money like it was going out of style” according to one former official, DARPA still had to justify its existence. Often, it was the military services themselves who were the most opposed to DARPA management and oversight of research projects—reportedly killing more than one aircraft program because the new helicopters were “ugly.” And the agency had to fight tooth and nail to move forward on other projects, like stealth aircraft, that would become synonymous with American military might years later.
Weinberger’s journalistic style brings the Pentagon bureaucracy to life, and the story has plenty of material for her to work with.
Tension between big and small ideas has run throughout the organization’s history. Do the scientists solve the specific problems soldiers bring them or do they look for revolutionary ideas that could change the strategic picture? It was the exception when the services came to DARPA with requirements for new systems—the engineers at DARPA largely pursued the technology they thought would be the most valuable to the military in the future. Weinberger’s history makes it clear it is the big ideas that have the most impact. In the words of one former director, “You don’t go after a minimum change or an incremental change. You go after something that’s going to force people to think outside the box.”
Weinberger ends her book on an uncertain note. In the eyes of former directors, DARPA is increasingly sidelined in the Department of Defense. For example, the Department stood up an independent organization to combat the threat of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), ignoring decades of DARPA work in that field dating back to Vietnam. It is a problem stemming from a mismatch in focus. DARPA, Wienberger writes, is an “agency of future war. It is still successful, but it was no longer relevant to war, at least not the type of war the United States was facing in Iraq and Afghanistan.” implying that the forever-wars in the Middle East are an older, more primitive type of war. DARPA’s processes are also changing—less and less work is done in-house, and the agency operates more like a venture capital fund or tech incubator. In the 1960s and 70s most of DARPA’s workforce were scientists and engineers, but increasingly they are project managers overseeing and contracting out work. DARPA is asked to work on smaller and more specific problems with little input on the strategic decisions that used to drive the agency—precluding the truly revolutionary work that made DARPA a household name and built the internet, while at the same time the organization was never the go to agency for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What Weinberger does not do is look forward. If DARPA was not considered a good fit for counter-insurgency projects, the return of great power competition as a buzzword in the Pentagon may be their salvation. The agency that became synonymous with science fiction projects and leap-ahead technologies is well placed to again take a leading role in any high-technology arms races between the United States and China or Russia.
Weinberger’s history of DARPA is an enthralling read and especially recommended for professionals in acquisition or research areas. It should appeal far beyond the defense community, it is perhaps the best institutional case study in innovation management and adaptive organizational design available. And despite some cheerleading and a mild case of myopia, The Imagineers of War will scratch the insatiable desire to peek into the secretive and hidden corners of the U.S. government and leave you more knowledgeable for it.
Walker D. Mills is a U.S. Marine Corps officer and a student in International Relations and Contemporary War at King’s College London. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: DARPA (Daily Express)
 Sharon Weinberger, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2017), 373.
 Ibid., 220-221.
 Ibid., 204.
 Ibid., 263-264.
 Ibid., 215.
 Ibid., 287.
 Ibid., 262.
 Douglas W. Skinner, “Air Land Battle Doctrine,” Center for Naval Analyses (September 1988) 3-7
 Ibid., 368.
 Ibid., 262.
 Ibid., 266.
 Ibid., 266.
 Ibid., 334-335.
 Ibid., 340-341.