Star Wars and Tank Wars

On the evening of March 23, 1983, a long black limousine pulled up to the south gate of Ronald Reagan’s White House. In the back sat Edward Teller, now seventy-five years old. Teller was not exactly sure why he was here. He had just flown in from California, where he lived, because the aide who called him three days earlier said President Reagan thought it was important that he be at the White House on this night.

Walking with a limp and a cane, Teller made his way through the White House foyer, up the stairs, and into the Blue Room. There he was greeted by Admiral John Poindexter, the Military Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Poindexter suggested Teller have a seat. Thirty-six chairs had been set up in neat rows. Teller sat down and waited. In another seat was the Jason scientist and Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes, the principal inventor of the laser.

At 8:00 p.m., in a nationally televised address, President Reagan announced to the world his decision to launch a major new research and development program to intercept Soviet ICBMs in various stages of flight. The program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), would require numerous advanced technology systems, the majority of which were still in the development stage. DARPA would be the lead agency in charge until SDI had its own organization.

President Reagan said that the reason for this radical new initiative was simple. When he first became president, he was shocked to learn that in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike, his only option as commander in chief was to launch an all-out nuclear attack against the Soviets in response. Reagan said he was not willing to live in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon—mutual assured destruction. The United States needed the capability to strike down incoming Soviet missiles before they arrived. This bold new SDI program would allow for that.

For decades, defense scientists like the Jason scientists had been grappling with this conundrum of ballistic missile defense and had concluded that there was no way to defend against an onslaught of incoming ICBMs. Now, Reagan believed that technology had advanced to the point where this could be done sometime in the not-so-distant future.

The Strategic Defense Initiative involved huge mirrors in space, space-based surveillance and tracking systems, space-based battle stations, and more. But the element that got the most attention right away was the x-ray laser, which scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had been working on since the 1970s. Very few people outside the Livermore group understood the science behind an x-ray laser, and even fewer knew that x-ray lasers were powered by nuclear explosions.

Several days after Reagan’s speech, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was leaving the Pentagon to brief Congress on SDI. Walking alongside him was Undersecretary Richard D. DeLauer, a ballistic missile expert. Secretary Weinberger was having trouble grasping the science behind SDI and DeLauer was trying to explain it to him.

“But is it a bomb?” Secretary Weinberger asked.

DeLauer was candid. As the former executive vice president of the missile company TRW, Inc., and with a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering, DeLauer understood the science behind the x-ray laser. “You’re going to have to detonate a nuclear bomb in space,” he told the secretary of defense. “That’s how you’re going to get the x-ray.”

This put Secretary Weinberger in an untenable position. President Reagan had assured the public that his new program would not involve nuclear weapons in space. “It’s not a bomb, is it?” Weinberger asked a second time.

DeLauer chose his words carefully. He said that the x-ray laser didn’t have to be called a bomb. It could be described as involving a “nuclear event.”

In a 1985 interview for the Los Angeles Times, DeLauer relayed this story verbatim. He said that the secretary of defense “didn’t understand the technology,” adding, “Most people don’t.”

The laser was invented in the late 1950s by Charles Townes, who in 1964 was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. In the most basic sense a laser is a device that emits light. But unlike with other light sources, such as a lightbulb, which emits light that dissipates, in a laser the photons all move in the same direction in lockstep, exactly parallel to one another, with no deviation. To many, the laser is something straight out of science fiction. In a 2014 interview for this book, Charles Townes, then age ninety-eight, confirmed that he had been inspired to create the laser after reading Alexei Tolstoi’s 1926 science-fiction novel The Garin Death Ray. “This idea of a flashing death ray also has a mystique that catches human attention,” said Townes, “and so we have Jove’s bolts of lightning and the death rays of science fiction.” A half century after Tolstoi wrote about the Garin death ray, George Lucas modernized the concept with Luke Skywalker’s light saber in the science-fiction film Star Wars.

One of the first sets of experiments involving lasers, mirrors, and space took place in 1969 and has been largely lost to the history books. The experiment began on July 21 of that year, said Townes, when, for the first time in history, two men walked on the moon. While on the lunar surface, “astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin [Buzz] Aldrin set up an array of small reflectors on the moon and faced them toward the Earth.” Back here on earth—which is 240,000 miles from the moon—two teams of astrophysicists, one team working at the University of California’s Lick Observatory, on Mount Hamilton, and the other at the University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory, on Mount Locke, took careful notes regarding where, exactly, the astronauts were when they set down the mirrors. “About ten days later, the Lick team pointed the telescope at that precise location and sent a small pulse of power into the tiny piece of hardware they had added to the telescope,” said Townes. Inside the telescope, a beam of “extraordinarily pure red light” emerged from a crystal of synthetic ruby, pierced the sky, and entered the near vacuum of space. A laser beam.

Traveling at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, the laser beam took less than two seconds to hit the mirrors left behind on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin, and then the same amount of time to travel back to earth, where the Lick team “detected the faint reflection of its beam,” explained Townes. The experiment delivered volumes of scientific data, but one set was truly phenomenal. “The interval between launch of the pulse of light and its return permitted calculation of the distance to the moon within an inch, a measurement of unprecedented precision,” said Townes. The laser beam was able to measure what stargazers and astronomers have wondered since time immemorial: Exactly how far away from earth is the moon?

While the astrophysicists were using laser technology for peaceful purposes, the Defense Department was already looking at using lasers as directed-energy weapons (DEW). In 1968 ARPA had established a classified laser program called Eighth Card, which remains classified today, as do many other laser programs, the names of which are also classified. Directed-energy weapons have many advantages, none so great as speed. Traveling at the speed of light means a DEW could hit a target on the moon in less than two seconds.

After hearing Reagan’s historic announcement from a front-row seat in the White House Blue Room, Edward Teller and Charles Townes had decidedly different reactions. Teller embraced the idea and would become a leading scientist on the Strategic Defense Initiative and the follow-up program, called Brilliant Pebbles. Charles Townes did not believe Reagan’s SDI concept could work.

“For a president who doesn’t know the technology one can see why [it] might be appealing,” said Townes. “It doesn’t really seem very attractive to me, or doable. But you can see how from a matter of principle it sounded good to Reagan. It’s like an imaginary story of what might be done.”

The day after the speech, Senator Edward Kennedy criticized the president’s initiative, calling it a “reckless ‘Star Wars’ scheme.” The name stuck. From then on, the president’s program became known around the world as “Star Wars.” Science fiction and science had crossed paths once again. For the general population, real-world lasers, death rays, and directed-energy weapons were scientifically impossible to grasp. Science fiction was not so hard.

Congress worried that SDI was not technically feasible and that it was politically irresponsible. That even if the technology were successful, it could trigger a dangerous new arms race with the Soviets. But after debating the issue, Congress gave the Reagan White House the go-ahead for the Strategic Defense Initiative, and over the next ten years, nearly $20 billion was spent. It is often said that the Clinton administration canceled the SDI program, when in fact it canceled only certain elements of the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI never really went away. In 2012 the Fiscal Times reported that more than $100 billion had been spent on SDI technologies in the three decades since Reagan first proposed the idea, $80 billion of which had been spent in the past decade.

SIMNET: A Turnkey Cloud-Based Simulator for UAS Suppliers

Space remains a domain where domination has long been sought but where all-out war has never been fought. For scientists and engineers working on DARPA’s SIMNET program, the focus would remain on land. There had been steady progress with the SIMNET program in the year since director Larry Lynn gave it the go-ahead, including the fact that the Army was now involved. Which is how, in the spring of 1984, Jack Thorpe, now a major, found himself maneuvering a sixty-ton M1 Abrams tank up over a muddy hill deep in the pine-forested back lot of the legendary armor school at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

“When we started SIMNET, the threat was on Soviet armor warfare,” says Thorpe, “meaning tanks.” This meant that simulating tank warfare was SIMNET’s first priority. The desired goal was to create a virtual reality that felt real. So Thorpe and the DARPA team were at Fort Knox, driving through the mud, attempting to “capture the sense of tankness,” says Thorpe. DARPA had big plans for SIMNET, with a goal of building four SIMNET centers to house a total of 360 simulators, roughly 90 per site. At the time, Thorpe and the DARPA team were working on the first two simulators, which would be models of M1 Abrams tanks.

Because there would be no motion in these simulators, the emphasis was placed on sound. Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) of La Jolla was in charge of working with field units at instrumented training ranges and collecting data. The defense contractor Perceptronics Corporation of California was hired to design the fiberglass and plywood simulators and wire them for sound. “For someone on the outside, the sound of the hundred-and-five-millimeter tank gun firing at a target downrange is incredibly loud, but for a person inside the tank the experience is totally different,” says Thorpe. Because of the overpressure, there is almost no noise. “It’s incredibly quiet.” What there is inside is movement, which, Thorpe says, “is a totally different kind of sound.” The audio specialists with Perceptronics replicated the sound inside the tank by simulating the loose parts that vibrate when the gun fires. “Coins in the glove box,” recalls Thorpe, “loose bolts, anything that’s not tied down.” Back in the laboratory, to convey that rattling sound, audio engineers filled a metal pie plate with nuts and bolts, then glued the pie plate to the top of a subwoofer which they hid behind the fiberglass in the tank simulator. Then Bolt, Beranek and Newman of Boston, which had been a principal contractor on ARPANET, developed the networking and graphics technology for the simulators.

The 1986 annual armor conference at Fort Knox was a milestone in SIMNET history, the first test run of two DARPA SIMNET simulators. General Frederic “Rick” Brown and another general would test the systems, and there was a lot resting on what they thought of a simulated war game. Thorpe recalls the first two simulators as being “about eighty percent [complete], made of fiberglass and plywood, with one hand control to control the turret.” The two SIMNET tank simulators had been set up roughly twenty feet apart. The generals took their seats and the DARPA team piled inside.

“Neither general had any experience in the virtual world,” says Thorpe. “Here’s General Brown looking at a screen in front of him with an icon of the other tank. I say, ‘There in that tank, that is the [opposing] general.’ He doesn’t get it. So I say, ‘Turn the turret and point it toward the other tank.’ The turret turns. General Brown got a little giddy. He gets it, I think,” Thorpe recalls. “I tell him to load a sabot [round]. ‘Sir,’ I say, ‘if you trigger here, you can shoot the general.’”

General Brown fired the virtual weapon. On the screen, General Brown watched the other general’s tank blow up. “Everything went dark,” Thorpe recalls, in the virtual world, “the general and his crew were ‘dead.’” From the other tank, in the other fiberglass and plywood box, Thorpe heard the other general call out, “‘Reinitialize!’” Inside his simulator, the second general’s tank came back to life. He swung his turret around, put General Brown in his sights, and fired at him.

In that “reinitialize” moment, Thorpe says, he became convinced that both generals were sold on SIMNET. “The behavior in a virtual world is the same behavior as the behavior in the real world,” Thorpe says.

After its initial trials, and with the endorsements from two U.S. Army generals, the SIMNET project had considerable momentum, and the DARPA teams went into production mode. In nine months, DARPA had constructed a building at Fort Knox the size of a small Costco. Inside there were roughly seventy tank simulators, each made of fiberglass, and each with the approximate dimensions of an M1 Abrams tank or a Bradley fighting vehicle. “The building was designed like a hockey rink,” Thorpe says. Power and networking cables dropped from the ceiling. “Entire tank battalions would enter the SIMNET center and begin training together, as if they were in a real tank battle.” Real-world problems had been built into the system. “If you left your virtual electricity on overnight, in the morning your battery would be dead,” Thorpe recalls. “If you didn’t pay attention to landmarks and disciplined map reading, you got lost in the virtual battle terrain. It was force on force. One group against another.” Competition drove the training to a whole new level. “The desire to win forced people to invent new concepts about how to beat their opponents.”

A second SIMNET center was built at Fort Benning, Georgia, then another at Fort Rucker, in Alabama, for attack helicopter training. In 1988 a fourth SIMNET center went up at the U.S. Army garrison in Grafenwoehr, Germany, also for armor vehicles. In DARPA’s SIMNET, the U.S. Army saw a whole new way to prepare for war. Then an unexpected new center was requested by the Department of Defense.

“The high rankers at the Pentagon wanted a simulation center of their own,” recalls Neale Cosby, who oversaw the engineering on this center. The facility chosen as the host was DARPA’s longtime partner the Institute for Defense Analyses, just down the street from DARPA in Alexandria. The IDA offices were located in a collegiate-looking yellow-brick and glass building located at 1801 North Beauregard Street. In 1988, Cosby recalls, much of the ground floor, including the cafeteria, was taken over by DARPA so an IDA simulation center could be built there for Pentagon brass. Cosby recalls the production. “We covered all the windows with camouflage, laid down a virtual tarmac made of foam, set up fiberglass helicopters, tanks, and aircraft cockpits, then networked everything and wired it for sound.” Finally, a mysterious feature was added, one that no other SIMNET center had. For reasons of discretion, Cosby and Thorpe called the feature a “flying carpet.”

“It was a way for [participants] to put themselves into the virtual world not as a pilot or a tank driver or a gunner, but anywhere” in flight, says Cosby. “It was as if you were invisible.” At the time, the details of the invisible component were classified because the flying carpet feature was a way for Pentagon officials with high clearances to experience what it would be like to fly through a virtual battle in a stealth fighter jet. These were the results of DARPA’s “high-stealth aircraft” program, which began in 1974.

Over a ten-year period, DARPA and the Army spent $300 million developing simulation technology. In the summer of 1990 the SIMNET system was transferred over to the U.S. Army. Its first large-scale use was to simulate a war game exercise undertaken by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), in Tampa, Florida. For years CENTCOM had sponsored a biennial war game exercise called Operation Internal Look, based on a real-world contingency plan. The Internal Look war games trained CENTCOM’s combatant commander and his staff in command, control, and communications techniques. The exercises involved a pre-scripted war game scenario in which U.S. forces would quickly deploy to a location to confront a hypothetical Soviet invasion of a specific territory. In the past, the war games had taken place in Cold War settings like the Zagros Mountains in Iran and the Fulda Gap in Germany.

In the summer of 1990 the Cold War climate had changed. The Berlin Wall had come down eight months before, and CENTCOM commander in chief General Norman Schwarzkopf decided that for Internal Look 90, U.S. forces would engage in a SIMNET-based war game against a different foe, other than the Soviet Union. A scripted narrative was drawn up involving Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his military, the fourth largest in the world. In this narrative, Iraq, coming off its eight-year war with Iran, would attack the rich oil fields of Saudi Arabia. In response, U.S. armed forces would enter the conflict to help American ally Saudi Arabia. Because new SIMNET technology was involved, realistic data on Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and neighboring Kuwait were incorporated into the war game scenario, including geography, architecture, and urban populations, this for the first time in history. In playing the war game, CENTCOM battle staff drove tanks, flew aircraft, and moved men across computer-generated Middle Eastern cities and vast desert terrain with the astonishing accuracy and precision of SIMNET simulation.

“We played Internal Look in late July 1990, setting up a mock headquarters complete with computers and communications gear at Eglin Air Force Base,” General Schwarzkopf wrote in his memoir. And then to everyone’s surprise, on the last day of the simulated war game exercises, on August 4, 1990, Iraq invaded its small, oil-rich neighbor Kuwait—for real. It was a bizarre turn of events. Science and science fiction had crossed paths once again.

Months later, after the Gulf War began and ended, General Schwarzkopf commented on how strangely similar the real war and the simulated war game had been.

“As the exercise [i.e., the Gulf War] got under way,” General Schwarzkopf said, “the movements of Iraq’s real-world ground and air forces eerily paralleled the imaginary scenario of the game.”