The Science of Lethality

The geographical scope of the US military is larger than the world, as even without the “Space Force” the militarization of space has proceeded apace. On this earth, there is its division into “commands.”

We must not forget the US continental sprawl of bases, training grounds, bombing ranges, and oceanic military preserves, and similar uses of US colonies. There are US bases in over 160 foreign lands. To the well-publicized ongoing wars we can add the Special Operations Forces (SOF) in more than 130 countries conducting small wars, assassinations, regime change or propping up our banana republics. In these “gray zone” missions the SOF may work with the Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, Agency for International Development, National Endowment for Democracy, or nongovernmental regime-change organizations. We also dominate North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members and partners, as well as other allies. Eastern European and Central Asian countries are now our satellites under the “uranium curtain.” Latin America hosts US bases and drug enforcement troops. US military training occurs in about 155 countries; it comes along with all arms sales. Weapons contracts create more ties; we sell more than any other country, but we also purchase parts and research and development (R&D) from diverse nations. We disseminate propaganda in many languages, through our own media and those abroad under our influence. There is the militarization of space and heaven knows what more.

One leg of this centipede is the vast science and medical research sponsored by the US Department of Defense (DoD). Of course, it is nothing new that war feeds and propels science; the physics and chemistry of weapons, and the biology of disease prevention and injury mitigation have long been fostered by militaries. Until the last century, more deaths in war were caused by disease than enemy fire. What is notable today is the extensive worldwide collaboration in US military research by foreign universities, scientists, business corporations, charities, and institutes; and international organizations. In the process of contracting R&D abroad not only are ideas harvested and economies stimulated, but ties are strengthened between foreign intellectual communities—significant parts of their nation’s power elite—and the US military.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other DoD agencies issue huge contracts for weapons research to corporations and universities in the US and foreign countries. They also sponsor research in neurotechnology, with the aim of creating cyborgs for military uses. While DARPA’s work with insect cyborgs has been buzzing along for years, its plans for human enhancement are even more spectacular. One aim is to enable humans to control weapons with their thoughts. Currently, humans remotely control drones via computers; the cyborg is intended to eliminate that external step.

“Brain activity will be monitored noninvasively through electrodes placed upon the scalp or skull or more invasively through the direction implantation of electrodes to the brain surface or deeper structures and networks.”

The less invasive “wearable interfaces could ultimately enable diverse national security applications such as control of active cyber defense systems and swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles, or teaming with computer systems to multitask during complex missions.”

The DoD hopes to achieve direct neural enhancement of the human brain for two-way data transfer by 2050 to “allow warfighters direct communication with unmanned and autonomous systems, as well as with other humans, to optimize command and control systems and operations.”

Among the US institutions contracted to develop high resolution, bi-directional brain-machine interfaces are the Battelle Memorial Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Palo Alto Research Center, Rice University, and Teledyne Scientific. Foreign universities and institutions also participate in the research, including Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation) of France (for developing implantable systems). Other DARPA neuroscience contracts and grants have been awarded to Applied Brain Research (Canada), Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (UK), Vivent Sarl (Switzerland), University of New South Wales (Australia), Biomedical Sciences Research (Greece), and University College (UK— to performed in Ukraine). (Contract data from

While the DoD’s preeminent mission is to increase lethality of the forces, DARPA notes that its cyborg technology is also used to “augment the loss of functionality from injury or disease,” such as implants controlling the use of prosthetics. Nevertheless, it sees a great need for social research to dispel resistance to cyborgs or robots (synthetic autonomous agents) on ethical grounds. This is a particular problem because “interoperability” requires all our allies to employ our advanced technology, yet in foreign lands religious beliefs and cultural differences can pose ethical challenges to our futuristic equipment.

Preliminary studies of this resistance have indicated that “the more religious Americans were, on average, the less affirming they were of these enhancements.” Appropriately, a recent $100,000 research project award from DARPA is headed by a social psychologist whose specialty is religion, and is entitled “Developing and Signaling Trust in Synthetic Autonomous Agents.”

Another concern is that US military personnel may object to being enhanced because the risks are not likely to be known for a long time. However, the DoD Biotechnologies for Health and Human Performance Council has suggested that specialized forces such as Navy Seals or Army Rangers are more likely than others to accept such risks because they promise enhanced lethality.

The Council is also miffed that the mass media, including film and literature, demonizes cyborgs. “From Frankenstein to the Terminator, the message is often that technology’s integration with the human body robs the human spirit of its compassion and leads to violence and grave, unintended consequences.” Thus it advises “leveraging media,” to inform the public via fiction and non-fiction the “societal benefits in cyborg technologies.”

A new division of DARPA supports “Gamifying the Search for Strategic Surprise.” Called Polyplexus, it uses social networks “to quicken the pace of U.S. technology development.” It is open source and unclassified, and thus hopes to mollify scientists who have been disturbed by secrecy and/or undisclosed funding of the Manhattan Project or Project Camelot. Anyone can participate—even retirees—by publishing micropubs, “tweet-like summary statements” of their research. Seen by all, previously unsuspected connections may lead to new frontiers of science and become eligible for substantial DARPA funding, while augmenting the global network of researchers. Other DARPA activities, similar to public school robotics programs, aim to make military research fun (i.e., “gamified”).

DARPA today announced that GatorWings, a team of undergraduate students, Ph.D. candidates, and professors from the University of Florida are the winners of the Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2)–a three-year competition to unlock the true potential of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum with artificial intelligence (AI). DARPA hosted the championship event at Mobile World Congress 2019 (MWC19) Los Angeles in front of a live audience. SC2’s final 10 competitors and their AI-enabled radios went head-to-head during six rounds of competitive play. GatorWings emerged victorious, taking home first place and the $2 million grand prize.

Many other agencies of the DoD conduct or support science, engineering, and medical research, including the Navy Medical Research Center, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (biological and cyber viruses), the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program, and the Minerva Research Initiative (for social sciences). Most US universities (and even some junior colleges) receive military contracts or grants; one of the best funded is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has had billion plus contracts in each of the last ten years.

However, the nationalities of the scientists and the locales of the research are worldwide; they include Peru, Laos, Kenya, Israel, Estonia, and Thailand. The DoD also awards large grants to UN agencies. Thickening this cloud of networking military research is the NATO Science and Technology Organization, “Empowering the Alliance’s Technological Edge.” NATO members (and some “partners”) are engaged in cutting edge “defense science,” including the exploitation of social media for intelligence purposes.

Some details of the projects can be found on the agencies’ and institutes’ websites, and cryptic but somewhat informative contract descriptions appear on

There is likely more classified research, but the available information is illustrative. Scientists are recruited to develop weapons; to fend off threats such as terrorists, cyberwarfare, or bioweapons; to clean the environment of obstructions to military activities; and to dispel ethical objections to warfare and its weapons. What if all those brains were figuring out how to live in peace with the world’s peoples and how to restore the earth’s threatened environment?

Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) and translator, with Shawn P. Wilbur, of Charles Fourier’s anti-war fantasy, World War of Small Pastries, Autonomedia, 2015. Web site:  Contact: