Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)


Federal agency established in 1958 to ensure U.S. world leadership in military technology; the agency that originated the Internet.

DARPA’s mission (“to engage in such advanced projects, essential to the Defense Department’s responsibilities in the field of basic applied research and development”) and organizational structure are unique among government agencies. DARPA reported directly to the secretary of defense but remained independent of the military research and development divisions. One of DARPA’s primary objectives was to deliberately avoid traditional ways of thinking and approaches to problems. Acceptance of the possibility of failure is another important founding principal of DARPA. These characteristics allow the agency to work quickly and decisively.

Throughout its history, DARPA has clung to most of its original principles and ideals. The organization remains small and flexible with a flat organizational structure with few levels of management, and it has retained its autonomy from traditional bureaucratic entanglements. The technical staff includes world-class scientists who rotate in and out every three to five years.

The organization has changed little, except in terms of its reporting chain and its name. DARPA has reported to secretary, deputy secretary, and undersecretary of defense; most recently DARPA reports to the director for defense research and engineering. The name changes are more complicated. Established in 1958 by Department of Defense directive 5105.15 in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, it was called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). In 1972 the name changed to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and it became a separate defense agency. In 1993, President Bill Clinton changed the name back to ARPA in an effort to focus on its role in general economic growth, and in 1996 the name reverted back to DARPA under Title IX of the Defense Authorization Act. Its operating philosophy has also changed over time—originally it focused on microelectronics and computing and network technologies, then on research and development business practices, and most recently on joint-service solutions that coordinate efforts among various agencies.

DARPA’s most visible influence has been on the evolution of computing and computer networks. Its structure and flexibility allowed for the creation and promotion of ARPANet, a means by which scientists and researchers could share information over computer networks using packet switching—a procedure in which “packets” of information are transmitted over various routes and then reassembled at the destination in complete form. The success of ARPANet and other DARPA research led to the creation and development of the Internet. Within 35 years, computers had spread beyond the highly expensive realm of a few and were connecting millions through desktop PCs. Consumers gained access to a multitude of Internet services from purchasing products to paying bills online.

The success of DARPA, however, is derived from the implementation of its technology and ideas into military abilities. For instance, the F-117 stealth fighter, the Joint Surveillance Target and Attack Radar System (JSTARS), and Uncooled Infrared Sensors—all used in the 1991 Gulf War— had their origins in DARPA research. The M-16 assault rifle, the standard issue for all U.S. troops, also has its roots in DARPA. From the military standpoint DARPA has proven highly successful.

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