Arthur C. Clarke once famously quipped that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." So perhaps it was inevitable that the Pentagon's extreme technology arm would eventually start acting like magicians - and try to create illusions on the front lines.

Top image: Inflatable army truck, via Buzz Museum

In its new budget, unveiled on Monday, Darpa introduced a new $4 million investigation into technologies that will "manage the adversary's sensory perception" in order to "confuse, delay, inhibit, or misdirect [his] actions." Darpa calls the project "Battlefield Illusion." Of course.


"The current operational art of human-sensory battlefield deception is largely an ad-hoc practice," the agency sighs as it lays out the project's goals. But if researchers can better understand "how humans use their brains to process sensory inputs," the military should be able to develop "auditory and visual" hallucinations that will "provide tactical advantage for our forces."

Ultimately, the aim is to "demonstrate and assess the operational effectiveness of advanced human-deceptive technologies on military ground, sea, and airborne systems."

If this all sounds a little outside the military norm, it shouldn't. Magicians and generals have had a long-standing relationship - one that produced very real effects during wartime. Harry Houdini snooped on the German and the Russian militaries for Scotland Yard. English illusionist Jasper Maskelyne is reported to have created dummy submarines and fake tanks to distract Rommel's army during World War II; some reports even credit him with employing flashing lights to "hide" the Suez Canal. At the height of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency paid $3,000 to renowned magician John Mulholland to write a manual on misdirection, concealment and stagecraft. It was republished in 2009 as "The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception."


Harry Houdini performing. Photo: Library of Congress

Nor is this the first time that military researchers have tried to confuse foes with sights or sounds that aren't really there. The defense contractor BAE Systems recently developed an "invisibility cloak" which it says can hide vehicles' infrared signature. In the early years of the war on terror, many in the defense tech community floated the idea of a "Voice of God" weapon. The idea was to use directed sound waves to convince would-be jihadis that Allah himself was speaking in their ears - and ordering them to put down their suicide belts. The U.S. Army's Medusa ("Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio") project had the same goal, but used a different slice of the electromagnetic spectrum - microwaves - to create sounds that seemed to be coming from inside the target's head. Neither program, as far as I know, ever left the laboratory.


"Battlefield Illusion" is one of several new Darpa programs that attempt to manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum to the American military's advantage. The $3.5 million "Electro-Optical Warfare" effort will look for ways to jam laser-based communications and sensor systems - just like today's radio frequency jammers mess with cell phones and radars. As adversaries move from old-school radars to newer-school infrared and laser systems to target our planes, these enemies get harder to track; there's no sonic "ping" to trace back. The goal of the $8.5 million "Multi-Function Optical Sensor" is designed to fill this gap, giving U.S. aircraft "an alternative approach to detecting, tracking, and performing non-cooperative target identification."

There are all sorts of technical challenges to making such a sensor, Darpa notes. Today, there's no "inexpensive, multiband, large-format, photon-counting, high-bandwidth receivers," for instance. But if one can be located - and integrated onto an American jet - missile-armed enemies will suddenly become instantly visible. As if by magic.


This post originally appeared on Wired's Danger Room. has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.


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