The U.S. Army Wanted to Conscript Insects to Fight the Viet Cong
But the six-legged soldiers weren’t terribly reliable
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Mao Tse-Tung famously wrote in On Guerrilla Warfare that guerrillas are proverbial fish who have to swim in the water of the people in order to win their struggle against powerful governments.
“It is only undisciplined troops who make the people their enemies and who, like the fish out of its native element, cannot live,” Mao explained.
But what if a government could turn the actual wildlife in rebel areas into loyal regime soldiers?
In 1963, the U.S. Army tried to do just that. Facing swelling Communist insurgencies across Southeast Asia, the ground combat branch hoped to conscript insects to fight rebels alongside human troops.
“Wasps, bees and ants are abundant in many environments, especially in
tropical regions,” researchers working for the Army’s Limited War Laboratory wrote. “These insects are excited to a high level of aggressive behavior by the presence of minute amounts of alarm substances which provoke the insects to make fierce attacks on any invaders of the area.”
Unfortunately, the six-legged reinforcements just weren’t reliable enough for combat duties.
While humans have relied on animal labor since ancient times, armed groups generally enlisted horses, oxen and even elephants — and only to carry riders or supplies rather than to directly attack the enemy. Actual animal “weapons” — attack dogs or flaming, sap-smeared pigs — have played very limited and specialized roles on the battlefield.
The U.S. Army had grand ideas of deploying the local fauna in places such as South Vietnam to harass or kill militants hiding in the countryside. The animals would ambush the ambushers.
At first, researchers didn’t focus on any specific type of creature for the project. But by December 1963, the Army had decided insects were ideally suited to its plans.
The Army’s idea was to fill small capsules with a chemical that would anger, or at least attract, biting or stinging bugs. The containers would be fragile enough that they would break open if anyone stepped on them.
Troops would spread the vials anywhere they figured guerrillas might hide. And the same soldiers could scatter the bug-pills around bases and camps to protect themselves.
“The triggered agent would be virtually undetectable by an enemy,” the Army scientists wrote.
In addition, the ground combat branch was interested to see if similar substances could attract disease-carrying critters to enemy food stashes. And if the chemicals drew out certain bugs, insurgents — covered in insects — might stand out in villages or cities.
“As one approach, the possibility of employing ‘fly factor’ as a means of promoting contamination … should be studied,” one 1963 status report stated. “A second approach would involve the use of cockroach sex-attractant in various ways, including promoting contamination and for personnel-marking and identification.”
The Army also conducted separate research into using insect-filled machines to spot insurgents deep in the jungle. At the same time, the service cooked up purely chemical-based “people sniffers” that, unlike the bug-bombs, actually did make their way to South Vietnam.
In 1965, the scientists at Cornell University put the basic principles of the insect booby-traps to the test. Their subjects were ants and honey bees. In their laboratories, researchers examined how the insects responded to the chemicals. Outdoor tests looked at how far those substances spread — and how well they stuck to people.
With the ants, “results were inconclusive,” according to one progress report. Undeterred, the researchers continued to try for “significant enhancement of aggressive behavior” among the bugs.
The next year, the Army ironed out a new deal with Cornell. According to the ground combat branch, the university had proved the underlying idea was sound and that the insects acted as one might expect them to.
Under the new contract, the research team would cook up chemicals to attract apis dorsata, the giant honey bee that’s native to South and Southeast Asia. These stinging insects can grow to nearly an inch long.
In June 1966, Cornell was supposed to have started a test somewhere in Asia to see if the scheme was ready for actual combat-deployment. But three months later, the Army totally canned the project. The military had spent nearly $35,000 on the idea, equal to more than $250,000 in 2016.
We don’t know the exact reason why, but it seems that the insect soldiers simply wouldn’t do what they were told. Apparently, getting them agitated just wasn’t enough.
“Studies tend to confirm results reported in the literature concerning the stimulatory effect of various compounds on bees and ants,” is all the 1974 summary had to say about the final results.
Before cutting loose its bug soldiers, the Army had already quietly stopped work on the other insect-based infiltrators and sentries. However, the studies into using bugs to find hidden guerrillas — or catch them trying to sneak into a camp — continued for some time afterwards.
As with other exotic Pentagon plans, the Army clearly decided that more conventional weapons such as landmines and flares worked as intended when they were needed — unlike an unpredictable force of unwitting, six-legged conscripts.
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