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Weaponizing the Shark and Other Pentagon Dreams

From the Annals of Full-Spectrum Dominance

| Tue Mar. 7, 2006 4:00 AM EST

We already have "stealth" aircraft, but what about a little of the stealth that only nature can provide?

Navy Seals, move over -- here come the Navy sharks. According to the latest New Scientist magazine, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, the blue-sky wing of the Pentagon, has set yet another group of American scientists loose to create the basis for future red-in-tooth-and-maw Discovery Channel programs. In this case, they are planning to put neural implants into the brains of sharks in hopes, one day, of "controlling the animal's movements, and perhaps even decoding what it is feeling." In their dreams at least, DARPA'S far-out funders hope to "exploit sharks' natural ability to glide quietly through the water, sense delicate electrical gradients and follow chemical trails. By remotely guiding the sharks' movements, they hope to transform the animals into stealth spies, perhaps capable of following vessels without being spotted."

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So far they've only made it to the poor dogfish, "steered" in captivity via electrodes keyed to "phantom odors." As it happens though, DARPA-sponsored plans are a good deal lustier than that: Next stop, the blue shark, which reaches a length of 13 feet. Project engineer Walter Gomes of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island claims a team will soon be putting neural implants "into blue sharks and releas[ing] them into the ocean off the coast of Florida." To transmit signals to the sharks, the team will need nothing less than a network of signaling towers in the area. This has "anti-ballistic shark system" written all over it.

Actually, it's not the first time the military has invested in shark technology. As Noah Shachtman of DefenseTech.org pointed out last July, "The Navy has tapped three firms to build prototype gadgets that duplicate what sharks do naturally: find prey from the electric fields they emit." One of them, Advanced Ceramics Research, Inc., limned the project's potential benefits this way: "If developed, such a capability might allow for the detection of small, hostile submarines entering a seawater inlet, harbor or channel, or allow objects such as mines to be pinpointed in shallow waters where sonar imaging is severely compromised." And then there's that ultimate underwater dream, the Microfabricated Biomimetic Artificial Gill System, that could lead to all sorts of Navy breakthroughs, perhaps even -- if you'll excuse a tad of blue-skying on my part -- blue shark/human tracking teams, or if not that, then lots of late-night-TV Aquaman jokes.

Of course, the Navy has been in nature's waters in a big way for a while with its Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. There, it trains bottlenose dolphins as "sentries" and mine detectors. Such dolphins were "first operationally deployed" in Vietnam in 1971 and a whole Dolphin patrol (like, assumedly, the shark patrol to come) is now on duty in the Khor Abd Allah waterway, Iraq's passageway into the Persian Gulf. To the embarrassment of the Navy, a dolphin named Takoma even went "AWOL" there in 2003, soon after the invasion of Iraq began.

As Nick Turse has pointed out, DARPA funds research into weaponizing creatures that inhabit just about any environmental niche imaginable -- including bees capable of detecting explosives; "eyes" patterned after those of flies that might someday make "smart" weaponry even smarter; gecko wall-climbing and octopi concealment techniques; and electrode-controlled rats capable of searching through piles of rubble. In addition, between nature and whatever the opposite of nurture may be, there's been an ongoing military give-and-take. Consider, for instance, BigDog, highlighted in the same issue of New Scientist. Compared to a pack mule, goat, or horse, this "robotic beast of burden" is being developed by Boston Dynamics to haul over rough terrain at least 40 kilograms of supplies soldiers won't need to carry, while being able to take a "hefty kick" in the legs without crumpling to the ground.

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