PopSci Investigation: What Kind Of Top-Secret Assassination Tech Does $58 Billion Buy?

Not since the end of the Cold War has the Pentagon spent so much to develop and deploy secret weapons. But now military researchers have turned their attention from mass destruction to a far more precise challenge: finding, tracking, and killing individuals

The Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, an unmanned reconnaissance drone, is the most recent aircraft to emerge from the military's "black" budget. Nick Kaloterakis

Every year, tens of billions of Pentagon dollars go missing. The money vanishes not because of fraud, waste or abuse, but because U.S. military planners have appropriated it to secretly develop advanced weapons and fund clandestine operations. Next year, this so-called black budget will be even larger than it was in the Cold War days of1987, when the leading black-budget watchdog, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), began gathering reliable estimates. The current total is staggering: $58 billion—enough to pay for two complete Manhattan Projects.

Where does the money go? Tracking the black budget has always been a challenge. Constantly shifting project names that seem to be randomly generated by computers—Tractor Cage, Tractor Card, Tractor Dirt, Tractor Hike and Tractor Hip are all real examples—make linking dollar amounts to technologies impossible for outsiders. But there are clues.

According to Todd Harrison, an analyst at the CSBA, the allocations for classified operations in the 2011 federal budget include $19.4 billion for research and development across all four branches of the military (funding for the CIA, including its drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is contained within the Defense Department black budget), another $16.9 billion for procurement, and $14.6 billion for “operations and maintenance.” This latter category, Harrison notes, has been expanding quickly. This may suggest that many classified technologies are now moving from the laboratory to the battlefield.

In fact, the rise in classified defense spending accompanies a fundamental change in American military strategy. After the attacks of September 11, the Pentagon began a shift away from its late Cold War–era “two-war strategy,” premised on maintaining the ability to conduct two major military operations simultaneously, and began to focus instead on irregular warfare against individuals and groups. That strategic shift most likely coincides with an investment shift, away from technology that enables large-scale, possibly nuclear, war against superpower states and toward technology that helps military planners hunt and kill individuals. Each branch of the military uses different language to describe this process. Pentagon officials have spoken openly about their desire to use advanced technology to “reduce sensor-to-shooter time” in situations involving “time-sensitive targets.” The head of U.S. Special Operations Command talks about “high-tech manhunting,” while Air Force officials describe plans to compress the “kill chain.”

Even inside the Pentagon, few people know the precise details of the black budget. But by combining what is known about Pentagon goals and what is known about the most recent advances in military technology, we can begin to sketch its general contours.

The first link in the kill chain: finding the person to hunt. Particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this type of intelligence gathering is increasingly done using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). According to the New America Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, the U.S. conducted 45 drone strikes in Pakistan in the first six months of this year. The centrality of unmanned aircraft to such missions suggests that the black budget is almost certainly already funding next-generation drones.

In April 2009, a French magazine published a photograph of one recent product of that funding—a slender-winged aircraft that had previously been spotted in southern Afghanistan and that aerospace experts had begun calling the Beast of Kandahar. After another photograph surfaced, this one a clear shot of the craft on the runway in Kandahar, the Air Force issued a statement that finally gave the Beast a formal identity: the RQ-170 Sentinel.

Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the RQ-170 is a tailless flying wing with the telltale shape and surface contours of a stealth aircraft. Black-plane watchers immediately noticed similarities between the RQ-170 and Lockheed’s unmanned Polecat aircraft, which UAV observers had long speculated was being developed in secret and which was finally made public at the Farnborough International Airshow in England in 2006. The Air Force says that the Sentinel is a reconnaissance drone, a claim supported by the aircraft’s lack of visible armaments, by the sensors that appear to be embedded in its wings, and by its “RQ” designation.

But much about the RQ-170 is puzzling. Why would the Air Force need a stealth aircraft in Afghanistan, a country with no radar defense system? It wouldn’t, according to those familiar with the drone. The RQ-170 was developed with a more sophisticated enemy, perhaps China, in mind. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be adapted for current conflicts, however. Unlike the relatively easy-to-spot Predator and Reaper drones, the RQ-170’s stealth could allow it to conduct missions that those aircraft cannot, such as clandestine tracking, or slipping unnoticed across Afghanistan’s border into Iran or Pakistan to spy on their nuclear programs.

Aircraft like the RQ-170, the Predator and the Reaper can get only so close to their targets, of course, which is why the Pentagon is developing micro-drones designed to investigate dangerous terrain undetected. In April the Washington Post reported that the CIA was using pizza-platter-size micro-drones to find insurgents in Pakistan. And the 2010 Pentagon budget contains a brief unclassified reference to Project Anubis, a micro-drone developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory. The Air Force won’t talk about that specific vehicle, but a more general 2008 marketing video released by the lab did suggest that future micro-UAVs might be equipped with “incapacitating chemicals, combustible payloads, or even explosives for precision targeting capability.” The video depicts an explosives-laden drone dive-bombing and killing a sniper. Budget documents indicate that Project Anubis (named for the ancient Egyptian god of the dead) is now complete, which means a lethal micro-drone could already be in the field.

The Pentagon is forging the next link in the kill chain—following an individual—with at least one high-priority research program. The Clandestine Tagging, Tracking and Locating initiative (abbreviated both as CTTL and TTL), which was conceived in 2003, is slated to get about $210 million in unclassified funding between 2008 and 2013 and may receive more than that from the black budget. “The global war on terrorism cannot be won without a Manhattan Project–like TTL program,” was how officials from the Defense Science Board, a civilian committee that advises the Pentagon, described the situation in a 2004 presentation, adding that “cost is not the issue.”

In a 2007 briefing, Doug Richardson, an official working in the Special Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Exploitation program in Special Operations Command, said that the Pentagon wanted to use 14 different technologies for tagging and tracking targets such as people and vehicles. Tagging could involve marking targets with invisible biological paints or micromechanical sensors; tracking would mean monitoring those markers from a distance. Other schemes entailed capturing a person’s “thermal fingerprint” and then tracking him or her, perhaps from aircraft equipped with infrared sensors.

More details can be found in proposals from companies and scientists seeking Pentagon contracts. One such proposal, from a University of Florida researcher, uses insect pheromones encoded with unique identifiers that could be tracked from miles away. Other plans employ biodegradable fluorescent “taggants” that can be scattered by UAVs. Voxtel, a private firm in Oregon, has already made available a product called NightMarks, a nanocrystal that can be seen through night-vision goggles and can be hidden in anything from glass cleaner to petroleum jelly.

Perhaps the most advanced tagging concept is “smart dust,” clouds of “motes,” tiny micro-electromechanical sensors that can attach themselves to people or vehicles. Thousands of these sensors would be scattered at a time to increase the chance of at least one of them reaching its target. Kris Pister, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon’s R&D branch, more than a decade ago to work on smart dust and was able to create sensors the size of rice grains. In the beginning, he now says, he and his colleagues imagined “smart burrs” that could attach to a target’s clothing as he or she brushed by, or “smart fleas” that could jump onto their targets. Pister says that this kind of autonomous microsensor is probably still not feasible. In 2001, however, his group succeeded in scattering more-primitive smart-dust motes from a small aerial drone and using them to track vehicles. A single UAV could easily carry thousands of tags, he says.

Citing security concerns, the Pentagon declined to elaborate on its research on clandestine tracking. (When I asked Zachary Lemnios, the agency’s chief technology officer, about advances in tagging, tracking and locating, he mentioned only “recent successes” and “state-of-the-art results.”) Yet in the same 2007 briefing in which Richardson delivered the Pentagon’s wish list of tagging technologies, he said he expected some or all of them to go into service by 2009. Shortly before 2009 arrived, the Los Angeles Times reported that soldiers in Pakistan were using sensors mounted on Predator drones that could track individual combatants even inside buildings—a report that, if accurate, suggests that tagging technologies may now be deployed overseas.

It’s possible that intelligence officials were exaggerating capabilities in order to intimidate insurgents. But there are other clues that the Pentagon may have deployed more-advanced tracking technology than it has disclosed. Last year, the U.K. Guardian reported that the CIA had given Pakistani tribesmen “chips” to plant in the homes of insurgents, who would later be killed by CIA drone strikes. A subsequent report by NBC News revealed a videotaped confession of one tribesman who claimed to have placed the tiny chips in exchange for cash payments from the U.S.

In 1998, U.S. Navy ships in the Arabian Sea fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at a number of training camps in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. The missiles travel at about 550 mph, roughly the same speed as a commercial jetliner. They took more than an hour to reach their targets. If bin Laden had been in one of those camps, he had left by the time the missiles hit.

Such failures have inspired Pentagon planners to examine options that would allow them to strike precisely anywhere in the world in less than an hour, even if no drones, bombers, ships or troops were anywhere near the target. The Pentagon calls the initiative Prompt Global Strike, and in an April interview on Meet the Press, Defense Secretary Robert Gates may have admitted that the U.S. already possessed this capability. “We have, in addition to the nuclear deterrent today, a couple of things we didn’t have in the Soviet days,” he said. In addition to missile defense, he continued, “we have Prompt Global Strike, affording us some conventional alternatives on long-range missiles that we didn’t have before.” The Pentagon answered follow-up questions with silence.

Technologically, the precise, one-hour capability is not inconceivable. By leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and traveling at 15,000 mph, an intercontinental ballistic missile can reach any point in the world within 30 minutes. Take the nuclear warhead off, and it becomes a conventionally armed Prompt Global Strike weapon. But it’s not that simple. This solution places the Pentagon’s current emphasis on killing individuals in direct conflict with its previous emphasis on fighting large military powers: Russian defense systems are designed to immediately detect the launch of an ICBM anywhere in the world; the government must then decide within minutes whether to retaliate. As a result, until Washington and Moscow find a way to distinguish conventionally armed ICBMs from nuclear ones, firing an ICBM at Afghanistan with the intention of killing even just one person could trigger a nuclear war.

To counter concerns that such an ICBM is heading for Russia, Pentagon officials have said that these weapons could be launched from California, where there are no nuclear-tipped missiles. (Since the placement of ICBMs is regulated by treaty and subject to inspection and verification, this system would, in theory, ensure that Moscow knows whether a missile is armed with a conventional warhead or a nuclear one. But this plan relies on Russia’s trust.)

An alternative to the conventionally armed land-based ICBM is a hypersonic weapon, essentially a cruise missile capable of traveling at many times the speed of sound—faster than anything in today’s conventional arsenal. These missiles would not have to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and would have very different trajectories from ICBMs, so Russia would be less likely to mistake them for nuclear weapons.

The Pentagon has mentioned two non-ICBM candidates for Prompt Global Strike, one from the Army and one from Darpa. Both of these weapons would be boosted into the atmosphere by rockets and then glide back to Earth at hypersonic speeds. In addition to these official Prompt Global Strike options, the Pentagon is conducting at least three other hypersonic or near-hypersonic research efforts: the Air Force’s X-51 WaveRider, which used a scramjet engine to accelerate to Mach 6 in May; the Navy’s Revolutionary Approach to Time-Critical Long-Range Strike project, known as RATTLRS; and the Darpa-sponsored HyFly, a dual-combustion ramjet. (Ramjets and scramjets achieve rocket-like speeds without the heavy burden of liquid oxygen by mixing jet fuel with compressed air that enters the engine from the atmosphere.)

The proliferation of hypersonic research may mean that the Pentagon has faith in the technology. But it also makes black-budget watchers like John Pike, the director of the military information Web site GlobalSecurity.org, suspicious. Pike believes the military’s hypersonic programs may just be a cover for yet another black project. What kind, though, he has no idea.

“Have you ever tried to get to the bottom of the American hypersonics program?” Pike asked me rhetorically. “You know, I tried to about five years ago, and it made no sense. There were just too many programs.” Although this could just be typical Pentagon duplication, Pike sees something more suspicious. “If I was building a cover for something, I would either reduce the signal or increase the noise,” he says. “I think they’re increasing the noise.”

Sharon Weinberger is a national-security reporter in Washington, D.C.