The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an independent agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, with a mission to prevent technological surprise to the US, and also to create technological surprise for its enemies. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which supports ambitious technologies for military objectives, was launched in 1958 by president Dwight Eisenhower. The impetus was the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, which demonstrated a level of technological prowess that shocked Western nations. Eisenhower’s ambition for DARPA — established in the same year as NASA — was that the US military would never again be left behind in this way.
Over the past 50 years, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has produced an unparalleled number of breakthroughs. Arguably, it has the longest-standing, most consistent track record of radical invention in history. Its innovations include the internet; RISC computing; global positioning satellites; stealth technology; unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones”; and micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), which are now used in everything from air bags to ink-jet printers to video games like the Wii. Though the U.S. military was the original customer for DARPA’s applications, the agency’s advances have played a central role in creating a host of multibillion-dollar industries. What makes DARPA’s long list of accomplishments even more impressive is the agency’s swiftness, relatively tiny organization, and comparatively modest budget. Assuredly, the United States’ DARPA has become legendary.
The “DARPA model” is characterized by a flat organization that empowers its tenure-limited program managers with trust, autonomy, and the ability to take risks on innovative ideas. DARPA operates through Program managers that are hired for 3-4 years to find, fund and foster new innovation ideas based on technology visions that each of them is expected to develop. PMs fund multiple teams at universities, companies, and government labs who take ownership of these visions.
About 100 temporary technical program managers and a vibrant mix of contract “performers”—individuals or teams drawn from universities, companies of all sizes, labs, government partners, and nonprofits—do the project work. The support staff comprises only 120 people in finance, contracting, HR, security, and legal.
DARPA spends about $3.5 billion a year, which is less than 1% of the total US public and private research and development budget. It’s a small enough proportion to justify DARPA’s reputation for taking on riskier ideas and having a higher tolerance for failure than conventional funding agencies. With its unconventional approach, speed, and effectiveness, DARPA has created a “special forces” model of innovation.
Dr. Timothy P. Grayson is the Director of the Strategic Technology Office at DARPA, and in a new interview said There are many surprises. For one thing, as Grayson says, “we don’t do requirements.” He does not see DARPA’s role as solving the problems identified by the armed forces, but looking at the bigger picture.
“We’re often contrarians,” says Grayson. “And stealth is a great example. The Air Force at the time was all about making planes go faster, supersonics, and just go faster. DARPA out there pushing prototypes for stealth was really trying to open up not just new technology but a new way of thinking about what the mission was and how we conducted that mission. ‘Oh, maybe you don’t have to go so fast if it’s really hard for a radar to see you.’”
The result was a transformation in air power. Instead of the Mach-3 B-70 Valkyrie which would have been an easy target for Russian air missiles despite its speed and altitude, the U.S. Air Force ended up with the stealthy B-2 Spirit, a bomber able to slip past defenses and hit targets without being seen. DARPA had solved the real problem, not the one the Air Force thought it had. In the process, DARPA developed technology for stealth fighters like the F-35 whose radar invisibility means opponents literally will not see them coming.
This approach means working for DARPA takes a certain type of researcher. And while most people working at the agency have PhDs and have carried out their own research, it is not a matter of academic qualifications. “We don’t have any firm requirements on credentials,” says Grayson. Rather than just being an expert in one field, working for DARPA requires knowledge across a wide range of technical fields. DARPA program managers need to be fast studies, able to absorb and digest technical information rapidly.
Interviewer Samuele Lilliu suggest Elon Musk as someone with the right kind of skills to work at DARPA, and Grayson agrees. “He’s not building SpaceX rockets or he’s not building and designing batteries himself. But he’s a quick enough study that he can ask the right questions and make informed decisions. That’s kind of the model that we look at for our program managers,” comments Grayson.
The elements of the DARPA model
The agency’s projects are designed to harness science and engineering advances to solve real-world problems or create new opportunities. At Defense, GPS was an example of the former and stealth technology of the latter. The problems must be sufficiently challenging that they cannot be solved without pushing or catalyzing the science. The presence of an urgent need for an application creates focus and inspires greater genius.
Autonomy to Program Managers
There are roughly a hundred program managers at DARPA, in six technical directorates known as Offices. Grayson’s is the Strategic Technical Office. Others include the Biological Technologies Office, the Microsystems Technology Office and the Tactical Technology Office. All of them give program managers more or less total autonomy in what they do and how they do it.
“They generate the ideas, they execute their program activities, overseeing them. But, again, the actual research work is conducted extramurally,” says Grayson. “We at the office level have very little control or oversight of what they do or even when they start the programs.”
This level of freedom has been extremely fruitful for taking on the toughest technical challenges, those that are ‘DARPA hard.’ These are problems where the best solution is completely unknown – like stealth rather than simply increasing aircraft speed, and where the risk of failure, often large, is part of the equation. The high-risk/high-reward philosophy is part of DARPA’s DNA. But that does not mean simply chasing wild ideas.
Temporary project teams.
DARPA brings together world-class experts from industry and academia to work on projects of relatively short duration. Team members are organized and led by fixed-term technical managers, who themselves are accomplished in their fields and possess exceptional leadership skills.
These projects are not open-ended research programs. Their intensity, sharp focus, and finite time frame make them attractive to the highest-caliber talent, and the nature of the challenge inspires unusual levels of collaboration. In other words, the projects get great people to tackle great problems with other great people.
By charter, DARPA has autonomy in selecting and running projects. Such independence allows the organization to move fast and take bold risks and helps it persuade the best and brightest to join.
Program plans are built around evaluating and managing technical risks. A set of questions known as the Heilmeier Catechism, after a former DARPA director, help focus program managers in making a realistic evaluation of any new projects and how to balance the risk with the potential benefits.
A closer look at DARPA shows how its managers pursue bold ideas while controlling risk. In a Comment article, members of a team working with — and in — the agency’s Biological Technologies Office in Arlington, Virginia, report on an initiative launched in 2016. This assigns an independent validation team to projects to troubleshoot and reproduce research proposals. This ‘shadow team’ meets with the ‘performing team’ to learn the precise protocols and establish the necessary conditions to reproduce projects, and the two groups make joint presentations to the programme manager on progress.
The work is hard — one project took as long as 20 months to reproduce. It is also expensive: it costs between 3% and 8% of a programme’s funds to make sure the technologies work. But programme managers say it is worth the investment, and the model demonstrates a more careful side to the agency than DARPA’s daring image tends to evoke.
Grayson estimates that something like 10% of DARPA projects go directly into a military production program. And he’s happy with that low number. “Because if we were doing things that were so well aligned with the production programs, we’re probably not out there taking enough risks, and we’re probably not being contrarian enough,” says Grayson.
Far more DARPA-developed technology does not transition directly, but goes via indirect routes. This typically happens when something DARPA originally developed gets carried forward by a government, commercial or academic research organization as happened with m-RNA vaccine research, which led to the Moderna and Pfizer PFE -0.4% vaccines. DARPA awarded Moderna a $24m grant in 2013 to develop the necessary m-RNA technology, an investment that now appears to have been spectacularly good foresight.
Other Countries experiment with DARPA Model
Not surprisingly, in recent decades there have been many attempts to apply the DARPA model in other organizations in the private and public sectors. All those efforts—or at least the ones with which we’re familiar—have had mixed results or failed. These disappointments have led people to conclude that the successes of this extraordinary agency simply can’t be replicated outside the Department of Defense.
Many countries want to replicate the ‘high-risk, high-reward’ US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have set up their own DARPA with mixed results. Germany, France, Britain, Italy and the European Union itself have all toyed with or actually created organizations claiming to mimic the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the near-legendary innovation machine credited with helping to invent everything from the internet to self-driving cars.
“Japan lost the innovation race with the United States because it lacked an institution with the strategic managerial capacity of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA),” a senior advisor to Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe declared four years ago at a Pacific Forum CSIS event in Taipei.
Japan, the adviser asserted, must learn from its mistake and set up a DARPA-like agency in Tokyo. Russian President, Vladimir Putin announced in 2012 that Moscow would launch a DARPA lookalike. Even the European Union, which has for the past decade been locked in a devastating institutional inertia, has since Brexit strategized ways to harmonize defense R&D and initiate a European version of DARPA.
The government of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is racing ahead with plans for an Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), modelled on the US original. The country is looking to boost technological competitiveness as it withdraws from the European Union. Precise details of its ARPA plans are yet to be revealed, but the available funding is expected to come to around £800 million (US$1 billion) over 5 years.
China has already followed suit and funded its own version of DARPA. Europe has founded JEDI in 2020. Unlike other DARPA aspirants, such as France’s Defense Innovation Agency, set up in 2018, or Germany’s Cybersecurity Innovation Agency, established in 2020, JEDI’s focus is more civilian: the environment, energy, health care, space and the digital augmentation of humans are priorities.
Russia also created an advanced military research agency in 2012, on the lines of the U.S. DARPA, called Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects (Russian: Фонд перспективных исследований), . The aim of FPI is to help Russia update its military equipment and develop new technologies. Some of the projects being implemented by the Advanced Research Fund have no analogs in the world, the Russian president said. In a visit in the Sverdlovsk region, Rogozin had said that Russia will not proceed like China and do not blindly copying Western models, but will have to develop by the ideas and technologies developed by itself.
The Advanced Research Foundation (ARF) was established in 2012 by a Presidential decree that tasks the government with “ensuring the dynamic development of breakthrough high-risk research and development, fundamental science and implementation of applied research programs in the interest of ensuring the country’s defense and security” The foundation is tasked with informing the country’s leadership on projects that can ensure Russian superiority in defense technology. It will also analyze the risks of any Russian technological backwardness and technological dependence on other powers.
“The main aim of this foundation is to eliminate a gap in our advanced research beside Western partners, after 20 years of stagnation in the whole Russian military science and defense industry” said Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin in his speech in front of the Russian parliament, quoted by RIA Novosti.
Russia’s “DARPA”, the Foundation for Advanced Studies (FPI), should play a leading role in both prioritising tasks and ensuring the economical use of existing funds because of budgetary constraints, Russian president Vladimir Putin told members of the Military-industrial Commission. According to Putin, “the Foundation’s projects are designed to play a decisive role in the development of key elements of the new generation of weapons, military, and special equipment. They should become the basis of the national weapons system at the turn of 2025–2030 both for the Army and Navy, and for a number of other industries and law enforcement agencies.”
China Has Its DARPA
In 2017, Beijing set up a “military steering committee on innovation,” with aim to emulate DARPA’s paradigmatic model and preempt any technological surprises detrimental to Chinese national security. The “Chinese DARPA” reports directly to the chairman of the Central Military Commission, President Xi Jinping himself.
A major success of the “DARPA model” has been its capacity to fuse the civil with the military; that is, to combine military and civilian institutions and incubate groundbreaking technologies. DARPA often works as a curator, coordinating the nation’s best scientific assets and thus “accelerating transformational technological advances in areas that industry by itself is not likely to undertake because of technical and financial uncertainty.” As Jay Schnitzer, a former director of DARPA’s defense sciences office once put it, DARPA’s job is to create the future, not to understand or to forecast it.
One of the most prominent attempts is the Joint European Disruptive Initiative (JEDI), whose first project — screening more than 50 billion molecules to find one that could inhibit coronavirus — started in March 2020. Unless Europeans are at the forefront of technological innovation, “other people or other political systems will impose their values on us,” argued André Loesekrug-Pietri, former special adviser to the French defense minister and one of the founders of JEDI. “And this is a very, very strong motivation for what we do.”
When politicians have too much control over such agencies, they can direct research to boost incumbent industries — backing incremental improvements in car manufacturing, for example — rather than doing something truly disruptive, like replacing cars altogether, he said. “Often in Europe we fight the battles of today,” said Loesekrug-Pietri — such as working out how to build better lithium-ion batteries — rather than coming up with the “next big thing.” This might include building a battery without using rare earth metals, he suggested, or one with double the current energy density.
To achieve this freedom, JEDI has been deliberately set up outside the auspices of public administrative bodies such as the E.U. Instead, it was created by a group of European corporate chiefs, research leaders and technology start-up bosses, and is initially being funded by private research foundations. Regardless of Brexit, British-based scientists are also on board.
As in DARPA, program managers are at the core of JEDI. These are outstanding and often charismatic scientists and technologists who are given the power to define challenges, assemble a research team and write checks almost at will to fund interesting ideas. “The way DARPA works, and we do exactly the same — and this is quasi-impossible in an administrative structure — is we hire the program managers, and then [ask them]: What do you think are the exciting problems you want to solve?” said Loesekrug-Pietri.This is hard to create within the E.U. or other state-like bodies because of rules around financial accountability and the geographic redistribution of funds, he said.
The plan is to create a “super-agile” organization, but then perhaps in the medium term merge it into the E.U. to give it financial firepower in the order of hundreds of millions of euros — on condition that its culture remains intact. But, for now, JEDI has just one project ongoing. Five to 10 more are planned for next year, and it has already approved 10 program managers. “We are definitely hiring,” said Loesekrug-Pietri, a Franco-German national with a background in venture capital. In contrast, DARPA currently has nearly 100 program managers overseeing about 250 projects, enjoying a 2020 budget of $3.6 billion. The agency reportedly pays its program managers far less than their market rate, but its reputation still makes it a magnet.
JEDI does not yet have this “myth” to turn to its advantage, Loesekrug-Pietri acknowledged. For this reason, its first announced program manager, Thomas Hermans, has continued his job as a chemistry professor at the University of Strasbourg. “If you want the best of the best, you cannot ask them to immediately quit everything they have,” Loesekrug-Pietri said.
Science ministry to set up Korean version of US DARPA reported in Jan 2022
The government will introduce the Korean version of the US‘ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency this year to accelerate future-oriented research on innovative technology, Science and ICT Minister Lim Hye-sook said in Jan 2022.
Adapting the US DARPA model — creator of the computer mouse, drones, the Internet predecessor Arpanet, GPS, and voice recognition — the Korean agency will have its own independent rights in operation and budget to lead challenging research and development of next-level technology. Its official launch is scheduled for the second half of this year, according to the ministry.
Why Replicating DARPA has proved to be difficult
But replicating an organization with a 63-year history, created by a U.S. shocked by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, is no simple task. “You have to set up an institution that has a large budget and has independence,” explained Alex Waibel, a computer science professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, who has analyzed whether Europe can clone DARPA. The agency has maintained its independence by being part of the U.S. Department of Defense, which is “sacrosanct” and free from “partisan bickering,” he said.
One reason why DARPA is so hard to replicate, says DARPA historian Sharon Weinberger, is because the agency’s projects have a resource that the others lack. “They have a customer with the deepest pockets in the world,” she says. The US Department of Defense’s annual budgets for research and procurement, totalling $190 billion, enable it to fund successful prototypes on a large scale, to test whether they might be commercially viable.
As Harvard’s Venkatesh Narayamurti put it last January at a Tsinghua lecture, innovation seems to be the child of a synthesis between basic and applied science, yet it is the availability of high quality human capital that makes the ultimate difference between the success and failure of high risk R&D projects. American private endeavors like Bell Labs as well as DARPA have been successful because they do not just invest in projects; they invest in highly capable and motivated people. Both feature a radical inclusion of the best talent they recruit.
Another challenge for Europeans will be actually rolling out any new technologies that emerge from an organization such as JEDI, said William Bonvillian, an expert on the DARPA model based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Having a scale-up system is absolutely key to a DARPA-like agency,” he said. When DARPA creates a promising prototype of a new technology, it has the U.S. military as a fabulously wealthy client to step in and place an order, he explained; stealth aircraft and military drones have both taken this development path. “Just having a stand-alone agency with a bunch of genius program managers won’t do it,” he said.
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