The military’s top-secret research agency threw millions of dollars at a bomb-detection system that worked no better than a coin toss, according to military sources. Sounds like your typical defense boondoggle…but as Wired‘s Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman reported this morning, there’s an added layer of intrigue to this debacle at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA):
By itself, the washout wouldn’t be terribly remarkable. Darpa’s charter is to try out risky technologies, many of which don’t pan out. It’s that dedication to high-risk, high-reward projects that leads to breakthroughs like GPS and the internet. But these contracts were given to RedX Defense, a company partially owned by outgoing Darpa director Regina Dugan and led by Dugan’s family. Agency bosses were repeatedly told that investing in RedX was a waste of time—and moved ahead with the contracts anyway. The bottom line, says a second source familiar with RedX’s work: “The technology just didn’t work.”
RedX’s bomb detectors are now in use by US forces across the world, including in Afghanistan. But according to insiders, the technology was only 47 percent reliable in detecting homemade bombs when it was tested by the DOD. “That’s less than chance,” a source told Wired. “You could flip a coin and do better.” So how’d it get approved for use by the military? “No other program had this kind of pressure” to be approved at DARPA, the source told Shachtman and Ackerman. “Or even this much interest.”
Dugan has since left the DOD to take a job at Google, but military investigators are looking at the eyebrow-raising relationship between Dugan and RedX. Shortly before leaving her post at DARPA, Dugan told a crowd that her agency was a bunch of nerds, and “nerds change the world,” according to venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who was in the audience. “I often ask: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” she said. It’s a question those investigators are likely asking now, too.