Honest to God, DARPA & Jet Belts

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Dear Reader:  the above is a sketch of an Individual Mobility System (IMS) proposed by a very special agency in the Department of Defense. The sketch was unearthed by my friend and much-admired colleague, Sharon Weinberger, who generously shared it on Twitter.  You could call this an IMS.  Or you could call it a jet belt.   — Ann

Ann:  Sharon, you’ve made my day, my month, my whole life.  Before we can get into the exquisite sweetness of this technology, I need to say that you didn’t just happen across this. It was part of your exhaustive research for your new book called The Imagineers of War, which is a history of my most beloved of all Department of Defense agencies, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; and I urge the reader to think about that name for just a little minute and see what thrills race up and down your spine.  So Sharon, first would you tell the thrilled reader what DARPA actually is and does?

Sharon: DARPA is a Pentagon agency that supports research with the goal of developing new weapons or other technologies for the military. Beyond that basic mission, what the agency is, or is supposed to do, is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. I think there is the widespread impression now that DARPA is a “science fiction” agency developing gee-whiz gadgets for the military, like the aforementioned jet belt. In large part, my book disputes this notion, so all the more ironic that I’m now highlighting the jet belt, which perpetuates this (partial) myth. In a way, it’s actually a good starting point to talk about DARPA. And really, who doesn’t love jet belts?

Ann:  Not one soul on earth who doesn’t love jet belts.  Am I right in remembering that DARPA’s motto is  High Risk, High Payoff?  Or maybe I’m remembering  its motto is Preventing Technological Surprise?  We need to cover these matters before I get to my really pointed and burning question: why doesn’t the jet belt set your pants on fire?

Sharon:  DARPA’s never had an official motto, but certainly a few phrases have been repeated by directors to explain the agency’s mission. “High risk, high payoff” is one of them. So is “preventing technological surprise.” But these were mostly conjured up after DARPA’s creation, as a way to justify the agency’s continued existence. If you look at the original directive for DARPA, it’s quite ambiguous, and just refers to pursuing projects as directed by the Secretary of Defense.

I think one of the fascinating parts of DARPA is that it has defied definition for so long: it’s filled different functions at different times. Its initial mission, in 1958, was to help the United States catch up with the Soviet Union in the space race. That role was taken away very quickly after DARPA was established, however. So DARPA had to find a new reason to exist, a “motto” if you will. Preventing technological surprise was one such mission. Pursuing “high risk, high payoff” research was another. So, you might ask, how do you get from the space race to jet belts?

Ann:  I do ask that, Sharon, I do.  First though, I’m expressing surprise that DARPA was supposed to get us into space.  Was it formed around the same time as NASA and NASA just ganked that mission away from DARPA?  And how do you get from the space race to jet belts?

Sharon: DARPA was founded prior to NASA’s creation, earning it the moniker of the nation’s “first space agency.” Of course, that’s true, but it also obscures something important: in authorizing the creation of DARPA in 1958, Eisenhower explicitly said that non-military space programs would go to a civilian agency (i.e. NASA) once it was created. Of course, the surprise for DARPA was when its military space programs were also taken away in 1959, leaving it with almost no mission. Roy Johnson, the first DARPA director, had grand visions of DARPA launching soldiers into space. He was so disgusted over losing the space mission that he declared he was resigning from DARPA to pursue a career as an artist. DARPA had to very quickly come up with a new reason to exist, so now we’re finally getting closer to jet belts.

Ann:  So when your reason to exist is taken away, you don’t just die? You find a new reason to exist?  So an agency isn’t created to do something, but just to be?  And with that question, I take down 90% of the government; so I withdraw the question..  So what new function did they come up with? And how do we get from there to jet belts?

Sharon: Well, to be fair, the agency did have a few leftover programs, like the not-quite-enthralling “propellant chemistry,” but none of those research areas had the prestige or glamor of space. What DARPA did have in 1960 was William Godel, a former intelligence operative who had been put at the agency effectively to represent the interests of the “spooks” (his word) in government. Godel was a man of deep strategic vision, and he believed you mold the bureaucracy around your goals. He had a real prescient understanding of world politics, and he knew the Cold War wasn’t going to be about just nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. For him, the space race was mostly a psychological war, and nuclear Armageddon, however terrifying, was not the most likely scenario. He had a great deal of experience in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, and he foresaw the United States getting involved in regional conflicts and insurgencies where it was ill prepared to fight. I’m not quite at the jet belt, but I’m getting close.

Ann:  Godel sounds smart but I was so hoping we weren’t going to have to discuss the past, present, and future regional conflicts and insurgencies that the US was/is/will be ill-prepared to fight.  Depression is looming here.  Can’t we just do jet belts?

Sharon: Sorry, I’m delaying, I know, but I’m doing it to make larger point, as you’ll see in a moment. So, it’s the early 1960s, and DARPA is drifting, but Godel sees an opportunity to carve out a new mission for the agency in counterinsurgency, which was a very novel concept at the time. He wanted to find ways to help local forces in countries like Vietnam fight insurgencies, particularly communist insurgencies.

Ann:  And insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are different from wars in what way?  I know I’m not helping here, I’ve just never understood insurgency.  Let alone how you counter an insurgency with a jet belt.

Sharon: Well, now we’re about there. So, one person’s insurgent is another person’s rebel, or freedom fighter, etc. An insurgent is just another word for irregular fighter, or guerrilla, meaning, someone not part of a regular, uniformed military. In this case, we’re talking about the Vietcong in South Vietnam. So, no, Godel did not want a jet belt to fight the Vietcong; he would have scoffed at the idea. He wanted DARPA to help equip the South Vietnamese military with technologies and weapons that would help them fight the Vietcong. He advocated for things like a rifle that was better suited for jungle warfare. But by the mid-1960s, around the time the insurgency in Vietnam was escalating into a full-scale war, he was pushed out of DARPA and sent to prison (that’s a separate and sad story, that I recount in the book).

Ann:  One DARPA guy leaves to become an artist and another one goes to prison?  Do jet belts play some part in these career changes?  No?  What happens next, after Godel leaves?

Sharon: Well, after Godel leaves, DARPA’s work in Vietnam is transformed: it goes from supporting local forces to supporting U.S. conventional forces. That was the exact opposite of what Godel wanted; his goal was to avoid getting U.S. troops entangled in these sort of conflicts in the first place. So, now we’re finally at the jet belt.

It’s 1965 and DARPA is being flooded with proposals. Companies are coming up with new, convoluted ways to explain how their technologies will help U.S. forces in Vietnam. Bell Aerosystems proposed to the Army and DARPA that a jet belt would be a nifty thing for special forces in Vietnam. The flying soldiers could — and please don’t laugh — swoop over the jungle canopy and hunt Vietcong.

Ann: Well that’s just dumb.  Are these swooping warfighters with their jet belts also carrying weapons?  And if they’re carrying weapons, how are they taking aim at the same time that they’re guiding their jet belt trajectories?  And Is there any reason why the Vietcong, also presumably carrying weapons, couldn’t just blow them out of the sky?  And here’s the killer question: why aren’t their pants on fire?  No, here’s the real killer question:  assuming neither DARPA nor Bell Aerospace are egregious idiots, who’s taking this seriously enough to even make drawings?

Sharon: First things first: the “pilot” had to wear insulating clothes to protect from burns, so “pants on fire” was indeed a concern. The test pilots weren’t carrying weapons, but there were plans underway to do just that; although recoil was an issue. But it never got that far, because DARPA pulled out, and eventually so did the Army, which realized the jet belt was of limited use. In a sense, anyone can look at those Bell Aerosystems drawings and start snickering: as much as we might love the idea of the jet belt, you can see why the applications they envisioned were a stretch. The real killer was that the jet belt had a limited fuel supply. It’s hard to chase down the Vietcong over the jungles if you only have a few minutes of flight time. And let’s not even get into the fact that most soldiers would balk at having to wear insulated clothing in a hot, humid jungle.

The bottom line is that the jet belt was impractical as envisioned for operations, but that doesn’t mean the technology itself was useless. The engine for the jet belt made its way into cruise missiles. Frankly, I’d rather have the jet belt.

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Sharon Weinberger is a national security writer focusing on science and technology. She’s had more fellowships that you can count, speaks more languages than seems reasonable, has written features for most publications, worked on Wired’s national security blog, and has written two other books, including Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld (Nation Books, 2006). She is also co-president for life, along with Ann Finkbeiner, of the Garwin Fan Club™.

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4 thoughts on “Honest to God, DARPA & Jet Belts

  1. See also the tweetstorm by @mrbeamjockey which includes a photograph of him wearing a putative jet belt.

  2. I always thought DARPA was just the US back door way of doing industrial policy. We may never have gotten jet packs, but we did get the internet and self driving cars. Granted, I’m a self driving car skeptic since I actually have driven an automobile a few times and I’ve been following DARPA’s work since the mid-80s when CMU’s self driving van tried to run over its DARPA project officer.

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