ARPA, DARPA, and Jason

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: After the success of the Manhattan Project, that ended World War II in the Pacific, the Pentagon significantly reduced expenditures on research and development of weapons as the world enjoyed peace. That was a mistake considering the actions taken by the Russians in the following decade.

The Russians kept-up their research spending and launched the 184 pound Sputnik-1 satellite into space on 4 October 1957, and the 1120 pound Sputnik-2 carrying Laika the dog on 3 November 1957, both on top of their new missiles. Russia gained nuclear weapons in 1949, and now they had a vehicle that could deliver them on U.S. cities at will. These events rattled the Pentagon and President Dwight Eisenhower out of their peacetime slumber. It only took until 31 January 1958 for the U.S. to launch its first satellite, the 31 pound Explorer-1. Military technology research and development was no longer on the backburner, with a new agency forming to put the U.S. ahead in this area.


In February 1958, reacting to the Russian lead in space technology, Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) inside the Department of Defense (DoD). The original mission was to stay ahead of our enemies and prevent future technological surprises like Sputnik. ARPA’s initial focus was on missiles. Later in 1958, the money for missiles and space programs was transferred to another new agency, (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). ARPA then changed their mission to long-range advanced military problems like the Defender missile defense program, early warning radar, and satellite detection of nuclear tests by the Russians.

ARPA was part of the Pentagon, a bureaucratic rats nest of inter-service rivalries and politics. The Air Force was broken-off from the Army and the CIA were created in September 1947, NSA was created in November 1952, and NASA was created in 1958. ARPA worked on projects for all these groups but was stuck inside the Pentagon. In 1972, it was renamed DARPA, changed back to ARPA in 1993, and then back to DARPA again in 1996. Also in 1972, the organization was moved from the Pentagon to offices in Arlington, Virginia, and out of the rats nest. The director of DARPA reports to the Secretary of Defense just like the military services.

To read more Warfare Evolution Blogs by Ray Alderman, click here.

DARPA employs only a few hundred people. They basically accept problems that the DoD can’t solve, take money from the Pentagon’s IDA (Institute for Defense Analysis) DDR&E (Director Defense Research and Engineering) office, and then they dole that money out to universities, military contractors, corporations (like RAND Corp.) and groups of scientists to study the problem and develop solutions.


ARPA and DoD were handing out those contracts to many of the nuclear physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project, by then all professors at major universities. Murph Goldberger, Keith Brueckner, and Kenneth Watson were three of them. They saw the opportunity to nicely subsidize their paltry teaching salaries by directly contracting with DARPA and formed a consulting company, Theoretical Physics, Inc. Charles Townes and John Wheeler (other Manhattan Project alumni) had a similar idea, of an informal group of physicist-consultants without a formal corporation wrapped around them.

The informal model prevailed, Theoretical Physics Inc. was disbanded and in 1960, Jason was formed. The name Jason comes from the Greek myth, “Jason and the Argonauts”. As projects came down from DARPA, the Jason group would pull-in the appropriate Manhattan Project physicists to work on them over the summer break from their teaching jobs.

The Christofilos Effect

Jason worked on a number of really crazy programs. One of their members, Nick Christofilos, came up with the idea that if the U.S. detonated nuclear weapons in space, the explosion would create a giant of high-energy electrons (beta particles). They would be held in place by the earth’s magnetic field, and last for months: the “Christofilos Effect.” Any incoming enemy passing through that cloud would be burned up. The U.S. could have a defensive missile shield covering the entire country if we just exploded enough nuclear weapons in space.

By the summer of 1958, “Operation Argus” was initiated. Task Force 88 steamed into the ocean just north of Antartica. The USS Norton Sound had three nuclear-tipped Lockheed X-17A missiles on board. On 6 September 1958, after two problematic attempts, the third missile delivered the nuclear warhead into space and it exploded.The beta particle cloud formed, but the intensity was limited and it dissipated quickly. By 1961, the Russians were also exploding nuclear warheads in space to create electron clouds. Between 1958 and 1962, the U.S. launched 14 nuclear warheads into space (10 of them detonated, including the largest manmade explosion in space in 1962: 1.4 Megatons).

The Russians launched seven nuclear warheads into space in 1961 and 1962. All detonated, the largest being 300 kilotons. Not knowing much about ( pulse) effects at the time, the Russians detonated a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead in space on 22 October 1962, at 290 km (180 miles) altitude in Test 184. The resulting EMP induced a current of 2500 Amperes into 570km (350 miles) of copper telephone lines melting them, started a fire in the transmission equipment that burned-down the Karaganda power plant, and disabled 1,000km (620 miles) of power cables between several cities.

The U.S. and Russia each detonated two nuclear warheads in space during the Cuban Missile Crisis (14-28 October 1962), as a form of nuclear “saber rattling”. Also, remember during this period that the Soviet B-59 was being hounded and cornered by American ASW (antisubmarine warfare) destroyers off the coast of Cuba during the blockade, on 27 October 1962. Captain Valentin Savitsky and his executive officer on the B-59 agreed to prepare their nuclear tipped torpedoes for firing at the U.S. destroyers. The Russian fleet commander on board, Vasili Arkhipov, refused to agree and the weapons were secured. Those nuclear torpedoes had a yield of 15 kilotons and a kill radius of 10 miles. The B-59 was about a mile from the U.S. destroyers with no possibility of getting out of the kill zone before detonation. That fact may have influenced Arkhipov’s decision. We are twice lucky that a nuclear war didn’t start during the Cuban Missile Crisis, considering nuclear warheads exploding overhead and nuclear-tipped torpedoes being readied for firing. Read Peter Huchthausen’s book, “October Fury” (2002) for more details. But, I digress.

1,600 Seconds

In the best case, how long does it take, from launch to explosion on the target, for a Russian ICBM to deliver a one megaton nuclear weapon on Washington? That was the question the Pentagon asked ARPA, not long after the Sputniks went into space. After some grinding and whirring by the ARPA folks, and possibly some Jasons, the answer is 1,600 seconds. That’s 26 minutes and 40 seconds. The arc-timing calculation results are recorded in ARPA document PPD 61-33. The initial boost phase of the Russian missile was 300 seconds. The midcourse phase was 1,200 seconds. And the terminal phase (starting when the warhead reentered the earth’s atmosphere) was 100 seconds. These numbers were predicated on the missile reaching at altitude of 800 miles above sea level. This data was fed into the Jason’s project on anti-missile defense systems.

Project Emote

In early 1965, U.S. troops were being ambushed by VietCong and North Vietnamese troops from their jungle lairs. After the attack, they would vanish back into the forest. So, the Pentagon gave the problem to ARPA, who gave it to Jason as Project Emote. The Jasons came up with a plan: spray the jungle with defoliant chemicals, let the dead plants dry, set it on fire with incendiary bombs, and create a firestorm. In March 1965, the 315th Air Commando Group dropped 78,800 gallons of Agent Orange on the Boi Loi Forest just west of Saigon in Operation Sherwood Forest. Later, dropped incendiary bombs on the dead foliage. In January 1966, Operation Hot Tip did the same thing. In 1967, Operation Inferno did the same thing. The jungle is moist and humid, and the fires all went out quickly. No raging firestorm. But Agent Orange did clear-out the jungle well, so they kept spraying it.

Operation Igloo White

This is the sensor network deployed on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1967, discussed in a previous post, you can read by clicking here. The Jasons thought this one up too. If you want to read the original plan they submitted to DoD for this project, here it is <>.

The “Iron Man” project

The “Iron Man” project, better known as TALOS (Tactical Light Operator Suit), was initiated by the Defense Sciences Office of DARPA in 2013. It’s a battery-powered exoskeleton that special forces and Navy SEALs can wear, that allows them to run farther and faster, carry more weight, jump higher, and continue to fight even when wounded. The suit contains full-coverage liquid body armor, and communications systems, heating and , an oxygen system, and hemorrhage control capabilities. It also protects against chemical, biological, and electromagnetic attacks. In other words, this exoskeleton turns soldiers into cyborgs. Field testing for this suit is slated for 2018.

The primary conditions that take soldiers out of the fight are pain, wounds, and excessive bleeding. There are other DARPA programs working on solutions for those:

- A vaccine that blocks all pain a few seconds after injection. The soldier remains conscious and can continue to fight. And the pain blocking effect lasts for 30 days.
- A vaccine for injection into the blood stream containing nano magnets to stop bleeding. The soldier moves a magnetic wand over the wound, like the hand-held medical scanner seen on Star Trek. It concentrates the nano magnets in the blood in the wound, stopping the bleeding.
- A vaccine that puts wounded soldiers into hibernation, lowering their metabolism, so they can stay alive for days until medical help arrives.
- Another vaccine that enables combat soldiers to operate at peak performance for seven days without sleep.
- A chip that can be implanted in a soldier’s brain, allowing him to communicate with other soldiers by electronic telepathy, upload data to computers, and download data into his brain. Also, they are developing a similar chip can be used to treat traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

As you can see, Jason’s membership has expanded from physicists to marine biologists, biochemists, sociologists, psychologists, economists, zoologists, computer scientists, and many other disciplines (I did not see any art majors on the list). My readings suggest that there are several hundred past and present members. Most of what Jason is working on today is highly classified, but there is a list of their project reports that have been made public <>.

There are many more stories about Jason and the amazing projects they worked on. Some were failures but most were great successes. As you probably know, ARPA created ARPAnet, which later became the Internet. Unfortunately, we don’t have the space here to keep going on this topic. DARPA and Jason are very closely connected, so if you want to read some really interesting stuff, start with Annie Jacobson’s book about DARPA, “The Pentagon’s Brain” (2015). To learn more about the brainiacs in Jason, read Ann Finkbeiner’s book, “The Jasons” (2006).

Next time, we’ll take a detailed computation-intensive technically-agonizing in-depth look at cyberwarfare. So, put fresh batteries in your TI-30XA scientific calculator, and go find your binary-to-hexadecimal translation tables right now.