Most Americans will go their entire lives without ever hearing about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, more colloquially known as DARPA. Yet, despite its relative anonymity, this agency is responsible for some of the most innovative technologies in the world.
What DARPA Does
DARPA was founded in the midst of the Cold War. The successful Soviet launch of Sputnik I and Sputnik II had discredited the American assumption of technological superiority. Now, the agency acts as the default research and development wing of the Pentagon.
DARPA has essentially the same responsibility that it had at its inception in 1958. It’s mission is to keep America at the forefront of technology and innovation, especially as it relates to national security. Notable DARPA-sponsored developments include the Internet, GPS, the precursor program to voice recognition software like Siri, and a myriad of stealth, precision, and super-speed military technologies.
Current initiatives are no less ambitious. Some researchers are working on stunning biological projects, including an attempt to build a miniature drug synthesis and manufacturing device to facilitate on-the-spot battlefield medicine. Other projects take a more harrowing approach, such as discovering ways to detect agents of chemical warfare and convert them into less toxic analogs.
Why DARPA Keeps Succeeding
DARPA’s primary advantage doesn’t come from its superior collection of scientists–although their resumés are certainly up to par. Rather, its greatest strength comes from its structure and operating model.
First, DARPA’s leadership rotates regularly: leaders often hold their positions for no more than five ears. This move was designed to keep corporate interests and political pressures from swaying development. Furthermore, the virtual guarantee of renewed funding promotes innovation and casts a much needed safety net for failure. This encourages the pursuit of ideas that border on whimsical and futuristic.
DARPA received $2.87 billion in funding during the 2016 fiscal year, and President Obama requested an increase to $2.97 billion during FY17. Although President Trump has requested $82.7 billion for military research & development—an 18% bump from last year—a specific amount is still unclear.
Regardless of the exact number, the necessity of DARPA cannot be overstated. Its explicit goal of “reaching for transformational change instead of incremental advances,” is vital to America’s national security. Without these brilliant innovators and no-nonsense scientists, the military buildup that President Trump is advocating would not be possible.