Celebrate the Facts!
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), established in 1958, is an agency within the Department of Defense (DoD) responsible for researching and developing technologies to advance the capabilities of the United States military. Each year DARPA publishes a detailed line-item budget of the unclassified projects within its realm, and analysis of that document provides intriguing details of the United States government’s concerns and ambitions about national security.
President Dwight Eisenhower created DARPA in 1958, shortly after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to reach space, sparking hysteria in the United States. Concern that the Soviets were on the road to technological superiority led to the formation of the agency. Its founding mission was simple: ‘to prevent and create strategic surprise.’
DARPA funding has remained relatively steady over time and hovers around $3.5 billion (inflation-adjusted). DARPA employs 220 people in six technical offices. Nearly 100 program managers oversee about 250 research and development programs.
The ‘DARPA model’ has some unique aspects management approach, and DARPA has achieved some impressive results. For example, each program has a program manager who works for defined and relatively short periods. In addition, Congress granted DARPA flexible acquisition and personnel hiring powers unknown in standard federal programs. DARPA can hire people and organizations out of the normal federal contracting milieu as a result.
Although the United States military was the original customer for DARPA’s research, the agency’s advances have spawned multibillion-dollar industries. Arguably it has the highest record of accomplishment of any organization in radical invention in history. Its innovations include:
DARPA fails too. For example, in 2011, the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 could not meet expectations, exploding 9 minutes into a 30-minute planned test flight when the weapon’s outer shell peeled away. In 2020, DARPA ended its Launch Challenge without awarding a winner. Of the three teams qualifying for the final event, Astra was the only team to compete, and the company ended up scrubbing the launch because of technical issues.
The United States spends more on national defense than China, India, Russia, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Australia combined. DARPA’s budget at about $3.5 billion is a tiny share of that amount but has proved outsized results. Likely the government directs emerging areas of most significant concern to DARPA for help, so the results of a detailed analysis give some insight into the government’s perceptions of the highest future risk.
An analysis of the active unclassified research provides clues about what the United States government views as potential future issues of concern for national defense. Aside from the standard conventional weaponry and support research, DARPA is funding research into pandemic mitigation, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI), and hypersonic weapons. The classified projects they’re working on are unknowable absent a government security clearance but provide unlimited avenues of conjecture.
The COVID pandemic provides graphic evidence of the vulnerability of the world to a pandemic, and DARPA’s research efforts in biological security show concern about future pandemics and biological weapons:
The cyber ransom attack on of Colonial Pipeline Co. demonstrated how vulnerable the United States is to foreign actors working for profit, let alone sovereign governments. As malevolent has been adversarial election interference by numerous foreign governments, often using social media platforms as tools to sew division and disinformation. Protection from the effects of cyberwarfare is the focus of another group of DARPA projects:
AI is an area of computer science that gives machines the ability to seem like they have human intelligence. Machine learning is the process by which a computer can improve its performance (as in analyzing image files) by continuously incorporating new data into an existing statistical model. While both are important in the highly technical United States military, they are critical to future strategic economic vigor.
Not surprisingly, DARPA is funding research on AI and machine learning:
Given the reputation of DARPA, the results of these projects could provide solutions or help inform the selection of additional measures. The AI and Machine Learning projects could be foundational to future industries and economic welfare. Cybersecurity is a demonstrable risk, and detecting and removing election interference protects American democratic institutions. The horror of the recent COVID pandemic shows the vulnerability of populations to infectious disease, and there will be similar future events. Time will tell if DARPA can provide solutions.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.