BBC Future

Code Red

Darpa: The element of surprise

About the author

Sharon is a 2012/13 fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, where she is working on a history of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Her writing on military science and technology has appeared in Nature, Discover, Slate, Wired, the Washington Post Magazine, and the Financial Times, among other publications. She is the co-author of A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry (Bloomsbury, 2008) and the author of Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld (Nations Books, 2006).

  • Sky high
    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is the high-risk research arm of the US Pentagon, tasked with creating cutting edge technologies. (Copyright: Lockheed Martin)
  • Cold War threat
    ARPA began as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa) in 1958 and was a direct response to the pioneering Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. (Copyright: SPL)
  • Arpanet explorer
    Although the agency initially focused on areas like nuclear defence, it is now better known for its work pioneering technologies, such as the early internet. (Copyright: Darpa)
  • Lost and found
    The agency also played a role in the creation of Navsat, a precursor of today’s Global Positioning System (Copyright: SPL)
  • Spy games
    Today it is also known for its work on far out projects, such as its attempts to turn insects into tiny spies using implanted systems. (Copyright: Darpa)
  • Running free
    Other high profile projects include funding advanced robotics such as Cheetah, the fastest legged robot in the world. (Copyright: Boston Dynamics)
  • Space reboot
    It has also continued its interest in satellites, including its Phoenix project that aims to develop technologies that reboot retired, non-working satellites. (Copyright: Darpa)
  • No hands
    Darpa-funded research continues to find its way into the public domain, including its work on self-driving cars. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Kit store
    Although the agency continues to diversify into everything from neuroscience to story-telling, its main focus is on military technologies. (Copyright: Darpa)
  • Tank team
    It most recently awarded money under its Fast Adaptable Next-Generation Ground Vehicle (FANG) programme, intended to develop a next-generation infantry vehicle. (Copyright: Darpa)
For more than 50 years the Pentagon's hi-tech research branch has endeavored to stay ahead of an ever-changing world.

When President Barack Obama earlier this month announced a new $100m year brain initiative, it was no surprise the White House would tap agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to help lead the effort. Less obvious, at least to some, was the role of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), a military agency that is perhaps better known for its development of weapons like stealth aircraft than medical technology.

That an agency founded over 50 years ago as the original space agency—before Nasa was created—would now become a leading government agency for brain research might be unexpected, but it is perhaps in line with an usual history that has spanned early work on spy satellites to current effort to help develop cyber weapons.

Darpa is an agency that has continuously reinvented itself, and this week may be another part of its story.

At a Pentagon briefing, Arati Prabhakar, the current head of Darpa, announced the release of a “framework” that spells out the agency’s role. “Our mission is unchanged, in 55 years, it has been and will be to prevent and create technological surprise,” she said, in announcing the new plan. “But of course the world in which we do that has changed many times since 1958.”

Before Nasa

Darpa was founded in 1958 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (the “D” for defense was added in the 1970s), an expedient way to manage civil and military space programs in the chaotic days after the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. When Nasa was formed, it took over the civil space programs from Darpa, and military space programs soon went back to the military services.

Rather than shut its doors, Darpa moved into a series of high-risk, and often futuristic science and technology programs, pursuing research in ballistic missile defense, computer science and counter-insurgency. In fact, many of Darpa’s biggest early achievements—such as a satellite system for detecting nuclear tests—are today obscure to a generation that has grown up during a US and Russian moratorium on nuclear weapons testing.

Of course, the dilemma of explaining—or in some cases defending—Darpa’s research, is that its applications aren’t always clear in the early stages. In the 1980s, Malcolm Wallop, a Republican senator from Wyoming, blasted the agency for spending money on super computers, saying that it should be investing in weapons—a criticism that ended up being terribly short sighted given the current importance of computing to almost all weapons.

Those questions aside, Darpa’s funding of the Arpanet, a precursor of the internet, an early prototype of stealth aircraft, and the Global Positioning System (GPS), have all contributed to making it something of a household name. The agency has also enjoyed recent publicity for some of its more far-out research, such as the Cheetah robot, a four-legged robot that can run at 46km/h (29mph).

Darpa is widely hailed as a success story—so much so, in fact, that its model of innovation has been copied—at least in name, among other government agencies, through the creation of  “Arpas” for energy, intelligence, and homeland security. Even Russia recently launched its own version of Darpa, though few, even in Russia, expect it to have the funding or reach that the original agency enjoys.

But even with public and political support, Darpa also faces cuts as part of sequestration, a budget deal that makes across-the-board reductions in spending. In recent congressional testimony, Prabhakar said that the agency was planning to delay one of its new cybersecurity programs, known as Plan X, by five months as a result of the budget reductions.

Beyond those immediate cuts, Prabhakar says there may be longer-term fiscal trends driving down the budget. “We believe we may be at the beginning of a fundamental shift in how society allocates resources to the business of national security,” she said.

Even with much heralded successes, Darpa also faces continuing questions of relevance: what is the role of a technology agency in an era when technology doesn’t always win - or lose - wars?  Though the document Darpa released this week revealed little new on the agency’s overall strategy, it did highlight some current interests, such as engineering biology, robotics, and neuroscience.

Indeed, defining Darpa’s overall purpose may prove the biggest challenge for an agency founded to help counter a technological threat from the Soviet Union, which ceased to exist over 20 years ago.

Asked, for example, what country might, given current US superiority, produce a surprise, Prabhakar’s answer was simple: “If it happens, it’ll be a surprise.”

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