The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World.
Despite its 60-year existence, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) remains unfamiliar to many people within the Department of Defense (DoD) and to most people outside DoD. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson, erudite astrophysicist and host of the National Geographic Channel's StarTalk television program, stumbled over the agency's exact name during an interview with journalist Sharon Weinberger, the author of this book, in November 2017. His minor gaffe unintentionally illustrated the need for Weinberger's history of DARPA.
Established simply as ARPA by President Dwight Eisenhower in February 1958, the agency provided managerial oversight of all U.S. space projects in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. The agency assigned specific projects to the Air Force, Army, or Navy for execution; but ARPA itself controlled the purse strings and substantial decision-making authority. Consequently, during its infancy, the agency helped demonstrate many key space-based capabilities: SCORE, the world's first communications satellite; Corona, the first photoreconnaissance satellite; TIROS, the world's first meteorological satellite; Transit, the first navigation satellite; and Vela Hotel, the first nuclear-detection satellite. Planning the development of space launch vehicles also became an ARPA responsibility prior to establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Beyond this early phase in ARPA history, Weinberger's book focuses sequentially on the agency's attempts to define its mission and organizational vision. She describes the agency's less-than-successful, sometimes sinister "counterinsurgency" efforts during the Vietnam War. Similarly, she assesses ARPA proposals for ballistic missile defense as "too expensive, too impractical, or a combination of both." Under its expanded name after 1972, DARPA shifted its mind-related research from parapsychology to biocybernetics, then to augmented cognition. By 2010, that research line evolved into "computational counterinsurgency," with emphasis on crowd sourcing and social networking technologies for threat identification.
Meanwhile, the agency participated in other technological advances. It managed to develop the ARPANET--ancestor of today's Internet--and fostered essential research for the stealthy F-117 Nighthawk, the remotely piloted Predator, GPS-guided munitions, and a host of robotic applications. Although Weinberger covers these and more, she fails to mention other cutting-edge, DARPA-sponsored systems beneficial to the Air Force, such as the semi-autonomous X-37 spaceplane and the innovative curved-focal-surface Space Surveillance Telescope. If this litany of projects sounds like a hodgepodge, it is. Weinberger concludes, "There did not seem to be any thought given to the overarching problems that DARPA was supposed to solve; it was just generating technology."
Measured by breadth of research, analysis of sources, and narrative composition, The Imagineers of War stands head and shoulders above Annie Jacobsen's The Pentagon's Brain (2015), the only other recent book about DARPA. Although both authors selectively pluck titillating samples from the past to present DARPA history, to one degree or another, as an expose of wasteful effort, Weinberger at least tries to be more objective. Jacobsen flatly failed to give readers a balanced, broader plumbing of DARPA activities. Furthermore, she committed numerous factual misstatements, such as referring to activities "deep inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs" in October 1960; that facility did not become operational until April 1966. Jacobsen also referred erroneously to satellites, "each carrying a payload of a hundred pounds of recording instruments," and "placed in equatorial and polar orbits" to monitor Operation Argus nuclear testing during August--September 1958. Only ARPA's Explorer 4--weighing 17.6 pounds--performed such a task. Admittedly, Weinberger does not escape unscathed in this regard. She misstates SCORE'S launch date as January 21, 1959, which was actually the date it fell from orbit. Such errors might cause some readers to question the accuracy of other details in both books.
All things considered, however, The Imagineers of War remains the best, most up-to-date treatise on DARPA history since the in-house volume prepared by Lee Huff and Richard Sharp of Richard J. Barber Associates in 1975. Until some ambitious scholar produces a truly comprehensive, multivolume history of DARPA, Weinberger's book will suffice.
Dr. Rick W. Sturdevant, Deputy Director of History, HQ Air Force Space Command