In a recent episode of FX’s hit TV drama ’The Americans,' the plot line hinged on what I thought was a fictionalized tale of espionage, utilizing insects as armed soldiers of sorts. It followed the lead characters Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in their attempt to foil an American plot against the Russians. Disease-spreading midges [resembling mosquitoes] were being bred to destroy the Soviet’s wheat supply to escalate that country's hunger crisis. Definitely a unique spy-story premise . . . but could any of it be true?
With a little research, I quickly learned ’The Americans’ was based on actual history. Entomological warfare is a type of biological military operation, which relies on insects to attack one's enemies. The concept is not new. It has existed for centuries, dating as far back as the Black Death of the 14th Century. That plague's spread over Europe may have been the result of a biological attack of fleas on the Crimean city of Kaffa, according to some historian theorists.
During the Cold War, the U.S. was indeed accused of entomological warfare against the Russians. “There were a number of accusations made by the Cubans that the U.S. used insects to spread dengue fever on a whole bunch of crop pests,” noted professor Lockwood, author of “Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War.” However these allegations were mainly lobbed during the 1960s every time Cuba had an issue with its crops, and were never proven.
Cyborgs Enter Stage Left
Over time, reliance on raising real insects to do a country’s dirty work was found to be costly. It required large laboratories and an army of research technicians to keep these large-scale programs ongoing. Plus insects were limited to crop infestation. If countries wanted to use insects for alternate military actions, they needed to think outside the box.
This prompted scientists to try and piggyback on evolution by building part-animal, part-machine cyborgs. Dragon flies were one of the first attempts at taking a stab at this approach.
This past January, R&D company Draper and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute launched a partnership aimed at turning dragon flies into miniature drones. This tech advancement, referred to as optogenetics is where an insect is genetically modified so that certain neurons can become light-sensitive ion channels.
This allows these neurons to be controlled by pulses of light, versus electrical stimulus. Next they developed a tiny backpack, light-weight enough for the dragonflies to carry all of the necessary control electronics, as well as integrated guidance and navigation systems that could make the dragonfly-drones fully autonomous. Their goal is to make these flying cyborgs carry small payloads, conduct surveillance and report back with intel data pertaining to the enemy.
Know Your Enemy
Wonder what the 5th Century Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu would think about this form of military engagement if he were around today? Tzu believed in “knowing your enemy” no matter what shape or form they assumed, and that “the supreme art of war was to subdue the enemy without ever fighting.” Cyborg warrior insects seem to meet those goals squarely on the proverbial head. So, I'm thinking he would have appreciated this modern-day advancement.
Oh, and if you are piqued by entomological warfare, there is one additional TV series that might be of interest. The premise of USA’s zany satirical TV comedy, “Brain Dead,” was not however based on the U.S. versus the Russians. This time American brains were being attacked by alien ants [ that's otherworldly, not undocumented immigrants], who seemed to have a political preference for the Republicans over the Democrats. Well, wait a minute . . . the more I think about what just transpired in our most recent presidential election . . . maybe the Russians were behind that plot line. Enjoy!