The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technology for use by the military. DARPA has been responsible for funding the development of many technologies which have had a major impact on the world, including computer networking, as well as NLS, which was both the first hypertext system, and an important precursor to the contemporary ubiquitous graphical user interface.
Its original name was simply Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), but it was renamed DARPA (for Defense) on 23 March 1972, then back to ARPA on 22 February 1993, and then back to DARPA again on 11 March 1996.
DARPA was established in 1958 in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957, with the mission of keeping U.S. military technology ahead of the nation's enemies. From DARPA's own introduction:
DARPA’s original mission, established in 1958, was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the US, but also to create technological surprise for our enemies.
DARPA is independent from other more conventional military R&D and reports directly to senior Department of Defense management. DARPA has around 240 personnel (about 140 technical) directly managing a $3.2 billion budget. These figures are "on average" since DARPA focuses on short-term (two to four-year) projects run by small, purpose-built teams.
DARPA is a Defense Agency with a unique role within DoD. DARPA is not tied to a specific operational mission: DARPA supplies technological options for the entire Department, and is designed to be the “technological engine” for transforming DoD.
Near-term needs and requirements generally drive the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force to focus on those needs at the expense of major change. Consequently, a large organization like DoD needs a place like DARPA whose only charter is radical innovation.
DARPA looks beyond today’s known needs and requirements. As military historian John Chambers noted, “None of the most important weapons transforming warfare in the 20th century – the airplane, tank, radar, jet engine, helicopter, electronic computer, not even the atomic bomb – owed its initial development to a doctrinal requirement or request of the military.” None of them. And to this list, DARPA would add unmanned systems, Global Positioning System (GPS) and Internet technologies.
DARPA’s approach is to imagine what capabilities a military commander might want in the future and accelerate those capabilities into being through technology demonstrations. These not only provide options to the commander, but also change minds about what is technologically possible today.
DARPA was created as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), by Public Law 85-325 and Department of Defense Directive 5105.41, in February 1958. Its creation was directly attributed to the launching of Sputnik and to U.S. realization that the Soviet Union had developed the capacity to rapidly exploit military technology. Additionally, the political and defense communities recognized the need for a high-level Department of Defense organization to formulate and execute R&D projects that would expand the frontiers of technology beyond the immediate and specific requirements of the Military Services and their laboratories. In pursuit of this mission, DARPA has developed and transferred technology programs encompassing a wide range of scientific disciplines which address the full spectrum of national security needs.
From 1958-1965, ARPA's emphasis centered on major national issues, including space, ballistic missile defense, and nuclear test detection. In 1960, all of its civilian space programs were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the military space programs to the individual Services. This allowed DARPA to concentrate its efforts on the DEFENDER (defense against ballistic missiles), Project Vela (nuclear test detection), and AGILE (counterinsurgency R&D) Programs, and to begin work on computer processing, behavioral sciences, and materials sciences. The DEFENDER and AGILE Programs formed the foundation of DARPA sensor, surveillance, and directed energy R&D, particularly in the study of radars, infrared sensing, and x-ray/gamma ray detection.
In the late 1960s, with the transfer of these mature programs to the Services, ARPA redefined its role and concentrated on a diverse set of relatively small, essentially exploratory research programs. The Agency was renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1972, and in the early 1970s, it emphasized direct energy programs, information processing, and tactical technologies.
In the area of information processing, DARPA made great strides, initially through its support of the development of time-sharing (all modern operating systems rely on concepts invented for the Multics system, developed by a cooperation between Bell Labs, General Electric and MIT, which DARPA supported by funding Project MAC at MIT with an initial two-million-dollar grant), and later through the evolution of the ARPANET (the first wide-area packet switching network), Packet Radio Network, Packet Satellite Network and ultimately, the Internet and research in the artificial intelligence (AI) fields of speech recognition and signal processing. DARPA also funded the development of the Douglas Engelbart's NLS computer system and the Aspen Movie Map, which was probably the first hypermedia system and an important precursor of virtual reality.
The controversial Mansfield Amendment of 1973 expressly limited appropriations for defense research (through ARPA/DARPA) to projects with direct military application. Some contend that the amendment devastated American science, since ARPA/DARPA was a major funding source for basic science projects at the time; the National Science Foundation never took up the slack as expected. But the resulting brain drain is also credited with boosting the development of the fledgling personal computer industry. Many young computer scientists fled from the universities to startups and private research labs like Xerox PARC.
From 1976-1981, DARPA's major thrusts were dominated by air, land, sea, and space technology, such as follow-on forces attack with standoff weapons and associated Command, Control, and Communications; tactical armor and anti-armor programs; infrared sensing for space-based surveillance; high-energy laser technology for space-based missile defense; antisubmarine warfare; advanced cruise missiles; advanced aircraft; and defense applications of advanced computing. These large-scale technological program demonstrations were joined by integrated circuit research, which resulted in submicrometre electronic technology and electron devices that evolved into the Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) Program and the Congressionally mandated charged particle beam program. Many of the successful programs were transitioned to the Services, such as the foundation technologies in automatic target recognition, space based sensing, propulsion, and materials that were transferred to the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), later known as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), now titled the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
During the 1980s, the attention of the Agency was centered on information processing and aircraft-related programs, including the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) or Hypersonic Research Program. The Strategic Computing Program enabled DARPA to exploit advanced processing and networking technologies and to rebuild and strengthen relationships with universities after the Vietnam War. In addition, DARPA began to pursue new concepts for small, lightweight satellites (LIGHTSAT) and directed new programs regarding defense manufacturing, submarine technology, and armor/anti-armor.
ARPA/DARPA is well known as a high-tech government agency, and as such has many appearances in popular fiction. Appearances can be classed into three forms. The first are more or less realistic references. Second are references that incorrectly attribute to ARPA an operational or political role, in addition to its high-tech responsibilities. Finally are those that want a realistic government reference, but are not DARPA specific - any other agency would do as well. These are numerous and not particularly notable.
Some realistic references to ARPA in fiction are in Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X (DARPA consults on a technical threat), in episodes of television program The West Wing (the ARPA-DARPA distinction), and in the motion picture Executive Decision (use of a one-of-a-kind experimental prototype in an emergency).
Non-realistic references often attribute to DARPA an operational or political role, in addition to its real high-tech responsibilities. Examples are the Matthew Reilly books Temple and Hell Island, the James Rollins' books Sandstorm and Black Order, and the video game Metal Gear Solid.