The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military. DARPA has been responsible for funding the development of many technologies which have had a major effect on the world, including computer networking, as well as NLS, which was both the first hypertext system, and an important precursor to the contemporary ubiquitous graphical user interface. Its original name was simply Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), but it was renamed DARPA (for Defense) during March 1972, then renamed ARPA again during February 1993, and then renamed DARPA again during March 1996.
DARPA was established during 1958 (as ARPA) in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik during 1957, with the mission of keeping U.S. military technology more sophisticated than that of the nation’s potential enemies. From DARPA’s own introduction, DARPA’s original mission, established in 1958, was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the US, but also to create technological surprise for U.S. enemies.
DARPA is independent from other more conventional military R&D and reports directly to senior Department of Defense management. DARPA has around 240 personnel (about 140 technical) directly managing a $3.2 billion budget. These figures are “on average” since DARPA focuses on short-term (two to four-year) projects run by small, purpose-built teams.
DARPA’s own introduction:
DARPA is a Defense Agency with a unique role within DoD. DARPA is not tied to a specific operational mission: DARPA supplies technological options for the entire Department, and is designed to be the “technological engine” for transforming DoD.
Near-term needs and requirements generally drive the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force to focus on those needs at the expense of major change. Consequently, a large organization like DoD needs a place like DARPA whose only charter is radical innovation.
DARPA looks beyond today’s known needs and requirements. As military historian John Chambers noted, “None of the most important weapons transforming warfare in the 20th century – the airplane, tank, radar, jet engine, helicopter, electronic computer, not even the atomic bomb – owed its initial development to a doctrinal requirement or request of the military.”
None of them.
And to this list, DARPA would add unmanned systems, Global Positioning System (GPS) and Internet technologies.
DARPA’s approach is to imagine what capabilities a military commander might want in the future and accelerate those capabilities into being through technology demonstrations.
These not only provide options to the commander, but also change minds about what is technologically possible today.
DARPA as a model
According to former DARPA Director Tony Tether and W. B. Bonvillian (“Power Play,” W. B. Bonvillian, The American Interest, Volume II, p 39, November-December 2006), DARPA’s key characteristics to be replicated to reproduce DARPA’s success are:
- Small and flexible: DARPA has only about 140 technical professionals; some have referred to DARPA as “100 geniuses connected by a travel agent.”
- Flat organization: DARPA avoids hierarchy, essentially operating at only two management levels to ensure the free and rapid flow of information and ideas, and rapid decision-making.
- Autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic impediments: DARPA has an exemption from Title V civilian personnel specifications, which provides for a direct hiring authority to hire talent with the expediency not allowed by the standard civil service process.
- Eclectic, world-class technical staff and performers: DARPA seeks great talent and ideas from industry, universities, government laboratories, and individuals, mixing disciplines and theoretical and experimental strengths. DARPA neither owns nor operates any laboratories or facilities, and the overwhelming majority of the research it sponsors is done in industry and universities. Very little of DARPA’s research is performed at government labs.
- Teams and networks: At its very best, DARPA creates and sustains great teams of researchers from different disciplines that collaborate and share in the teams’ advances.
- Hiring continuity and change: DARPA’s technical staff is hired or assigned for four to six years. Like any strong organization, DARPA mixes experience and change. It retains a base of experienced experts – its Office Directors and support staff – who are knowledgeable about DoD. The staff is rotated to ensure fresh thinking and perspectives, and to have room to bring technical staff from new areas into DARPA. It also allows the program managers to be bold and not fear failure.
- Project-based assignments organized around a challenge model: DARPA organizes a significant part of its portfolio around specific technology challenges. It foresees new innovation-based capabilities and then works back to the fundamental breakthroughs required to make them possible. Although individual projects typically last three to five years, major technological challenges may be addressed over longer time periods, ensuring patient investment on a series of focused steps and keeping teams together for ongoing collaboration. Continued funding for DARPA projects is based on passing specific milestones, sometimes called “go/no-go’s.”
- Outsourced support personnel: DARPA extensively leverages technical, contracting, and administrative services from other DoD agencies and branches of the military. This provides DARPA the flexibility to get into and out of an area without the burden of sustaining staff, while building cooperative alliances with its “agents.” These outside agents help create a constituency in their respective organizations for adopting the technology.
- Outstanding program managers: The best DARPA program managers have always been freewheeling zealots in pursuit of their goals. The Director’s most important task is to recruit and hire very creative people with big ideas, and empower them.
- Acceptance of failure: DARPA pursues breakthrough opportunities and is very tolerant of technical failure if the payoff from success will be great enough.
- Orientation to revolutionary breakthroughs in a connected approach: DARPA historically has focused not on incremental but radical innovation. It emphasizes high-risk investment, moves from fundamental technological advances to prototyping, and then hands off the system development and production to the military services or the commercial sector.
- Mix of connected collaborators: DARPA typically builds strong teams and networks of collaborators, bringing in a range of technical expertise and applicable disciplines, and involving university researchers and technology firms that are often not significant defense contractors or beltway consultants.
DARPA was created as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), by Public Law 85-325 and Department of Defense Directive 5105.41, in February 1958. Its creation was directly attributed to the launching of Sputnik and to U.S. realization that the Soviet Union had developed the capacity to rapidly exploit military technology. Additionally, the political and defense communities recognized the need for a high-level Department of Defense organization to formulate and execute R&D projects that would expand the frontiers of technology beyond the immediate and specific requirements of the Military Services and their laboratories. In pursuit of this mission, DARPA has developed and transferred technology programs encompassing a wide range of scientific disciplines which address the full spectrum of national security needs.
From 1958-1965, ARPA’s emphasis centered on major national issues, including space, ballistic missile defense, and nuclear test detection. During 1960, all of its civilian space programs were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the military space programs to the individual Services. This allowed DARPA to concentrate its efforts on the DEFENDER (defense against ballistic missiles), Project Vela (nuclear test detection), and AGILE (counterinsurgency R&D) Programs, and to begin work on computer processing, behavioral sciences, and materials sciences. The DEFENDER and AGILE Programs formed the foundation of DARPA sensor, surveillance, and directed energy R&D, particularly in the study of radar, infrared sensing, and x-ray/gamma ray detection.
During the late 1960s, with the transfer of these mature programs to the Services, ARPA redefined its role and concentrated on a diverse set of relatively small, essentially exploratory research programs. The Agency was renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1972, and during the early 1970s, it emphasized direct energy programs, information processing, and tactical technologies.
Concerning information processing, DARPA made great progress, initially through its support of the development of time-sharing (all modern operating systems rely on concepts invented for the Multics system, developed by a cooperation between Bell Labs, General Electric and MIT, which DARPA supported by funding Project MAC at MIT with an initial two-million-dollar grant), and later through the evolution of the ARPANET (the first wide-area packet switching network), Packet Radio Network, Packet Satellite Network and ultimately, the Internet and research in the artificial intelligence (AI) fields of speech recognition and signal processing.
DARPA also funded the development of the Douglas Engelbart’s NLS computer system and the Aspen Movie Map, which was probably the first hypermedia system and an important precursor of virtual reality. The Mansfield Amendment of 1973 expressly limited appropriations for defense research (through ARPA/DARPA) to projects with direct military application. Some contend that the amendment devastated American science, since ARPA/DARPA was a major funding source for basic science projects of the time; the National Science Foundation never made up the difference as expected. But the resulting “brain drain” is also credited with boosting the development of the fledgling personal computer industry. Many young computer scientists fled from the universities to startups and private research labs like Xerox PARC.
From 1976-1981, DARPA’s major thrusts were dominated by air, land, sea, and space technology, such as follow-on forces attack with standoff weapons and associated Command, Control, and Communications; tactical armor and anti-armor programs; infrared sensing for space-based surveillance; high-energy laser technology for space-based missile defense; antisubmarine warfare; advanced cruise missiles; advanced aircraft; and defense applications of advanced computing.
These large-scale technological program demonstrations were joined by integrated circuit research, which resulted in submicrometre electronic technology and electron devices that evolved into the Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) Program and the Congressionally mandated charged particle beam program. Many of the successful programs were transitioned to the Services, such as the foundation technologies in automatic target recognition, space based sensing, propulsion, and materials that were transferred to the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), later known as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), now titled the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
During the 1980s, the attention of the Agency was centered on information processing and aircraft-related programs, including the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) or Hypersonic Research Program. The Strategic Computing Program enabled DARPA to exploit advanced processing and networking technologies and to rebuild and strengthen relationships with universities after the Vietnam War. In addition, DARPA began to pursue new concepts for small, lightweight satellites (LIGHTSAT) and directed new programs regarding defense manufacturing, submarine technology, and armor/anti-armor.
On October 28, 2009 the agency broke ground on a new facility in Arlington, Virginia a few miles from the Pentagon.
Current program offices
DARPA has seven program offices, all of which report to the DARPA director.
- The Adaptive Execution Office (AEO) mission is to conceive and execute novel technology and system developments that are adaptive both in end function and in the process by which they are developed and to improve the transition worthiness of DAPRA programs across the enterprise.
- The Defense Sciences Office (DSO) vigorously pursues the most promising technologies within a broad spectrum of the science and engineering research communities and develops those technologies into important, radically new military capabilities.
- The Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) focuses on inventing the networking, computing, and software technologies vital to ensuring DOD military superiority.
- The Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) mission focuses on the heterogeneous microchip-scale integration of electronics, photonics, and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Their high risk/high payoff technology is aimed at solving the national level problems of protection from biological, chemical and information attack and to provide operational dominance for mobile distributed command and control, combined manned/unmanned warfare, and dynamic, adaptive military planning and execution.
- The Strategic Technology Office (STO) mission is to focus on technologies that have a global theater-wide impact and that involve multiple Services.
- The Tactical Technology Office (TTO) engages in high-risk, high-payoff advanced military research, emphasizing the “system” and “subsystem” approach to the development of aeronautic, space, and land systems as well as embedded processors and control systems. This research includes an effort within the TTO to develop a small satellite launch vehicle. This vehicle is under development by AirLaunch LLC. This is part of the Force Application and Launch from Continental United States (FALCON) effort.
- The Transformational Convergence Technology Office (TCTO) mission is to advance new crosscutting capabilities derived from a broad range of emerging technological and social trends, particularly in areas related to computing and computing-reliant subareas of the life sciences, social sciences, manufacturing, and commerce.
- Information Awareness Office – 2002-2003
- The Advanced Technology Office (ATO) researched, demonstrated, and developed high payoff projects in maritime, communications, special operations, command and control, and information assurance and survivability mission areas.
- The Special Projects Office (SPO) researched, developed, demonstrated, and transitioned technologies focused on addressing present and emerging national challenges. SPO investments ranged from the development of enabling technologies to the demonstration of large prototype systems.
- SPO developed technologies to counter the emerging threat of underground facilities used for purposes ranging from command-and-control, to weapons storage and staging, to the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.
- SPO developed significantly more cost-effective ways to counter proliferated, inexpensive cruise missiles, UAVs, and other platforms used for weapon delivery, jamming, and surveillance.
- SPO invested in novel space technologies across the spectrum of space control applications including rapid access, space situational awareness, counterspace, and persistent tactical grade sensing approaches including extremely large space apertures and structures.
- Boeing X-37
- Boomerang (mobile shooter detection system)
- CALO or “Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes” – software
- Combat Zones That See
- DARPA Network Challenge
- DARPA XG
- High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System
- High Productivity Computing Systems
- Northrop Grumman Switchblade
- Protein Design Processes
- Remote-controlled insects 
- System F6 – Fractionated Spacecraft demonstrator
- WolfPack 
- Project AGILE
- ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet
- Aspen Movie Map
- Boeing X-45
- DARPA Grand Challenge – driverless car competition
- High Performance Knowledge Bases
- Hypersonic Research Program
- I3 (Intelligent Integration of Information), supported the Digital Library research effort through NSF
- Project MAC
- MQ-1 Predator
- NLS Computer System
- Onion routing
- Passive radar
- Policy Analysis Market
- Rapid Knowledge Formation
- Sea Shadow
- Strategic Computing Program
- Project Vela
ARPA/DARPA is well known as a high-tech government agency, and as such has many appearances in popular fiction.
Appearances can be classed into three forms. The first are more or less realistic references. Second are references that incorrectly attribute to ARPA an operational or political role, in addition to its high-tech responsibilities. Finally are those that want a realistic government reference, but are not DARPA specific – any other agency would do as well. These are numerous and not particularly notable.
Some realistic references to ARPA in fiction are in Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X (DARPA consults on a technical threat), in episodes of television program The West Wing (the ARPA-DARPA distinction), and in the motion picture Executive Decision (use of a one-of-a-kind experimental prototype in an emergency).
Non-realistic references often attribute to DARPA an operational or political role, in addition to its real high-tech responsibilities. Examples are the Matthew Reilly books Temple and Hell Island, the James Rollins’ books Sandstorm and Black Order, and the video game series Metal Gear Solid
- “50 years of Bridging the Gap”
- John Chambers, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Military History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 791.
- Statement by Dr. Tony Tether (Director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities (House Armed Services Committee – United States House of Representatives) on March 13, 2008 section DARPA as a model in which he says this is content he agrees with that he is repeating from “Power Play,” W. B. Bonvillian, The American Interest, Volume II, p 39 (November-December 2006).
- Washington Times, “Pentagon Agency Breaks Ground”, October 29, 2009.
- Mollet, C. (2009-02-20). “DARPA Directors, 1958 – 2008”. DARPA. http://www.darpa.mil/Docs/DARPA_Directors_200807171322095.pdf.
- Oral history interview with Charles Herzfeld Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Herzfeld discusses programs in and administration of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
- Oral history interview with Stephen Lukasik. Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Lukasik discusses his tenure at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the development of computer networks and the ARPANET.
- DARPA Offices – https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/offices
- DSO Official homepage
- DARPA Offices – https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/offices
- “Falcon”. DARPA. 2008. https://www.darpa.mil/program/falcon-htv-2.
- “Airlaunchllc News”. Airlaunch. http://www.airlaunchllc.com/News.htm.
- DARPA Offices – https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/offices
- Carnegie-Mellon University
- Victor Appleton II, 1961. Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X, originally published by Grosset & Dunlap of New York, now re-published by Project Gutenberg. ARPA is referred to on page 68 published 1961