Research Agency Celebrates 50th Anniversary Looking to Future
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2008 Fifty years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in response to the Russians’ surprise Sputnik launch, the agency continues to advance technologies and systems that give revolutionary advantages to the U.S. military.
Eisenhower’s guidance to the new agency when it stood up in February 1958 was clear: keep the U.S. military ahead of its enemies technologically and prevent any future technological surprise from another nation. That meant forging ahead with innovative, sometimes even radical, concepts that might be too risky for the private sector to take on alone.
Fifty years later, DARPA continues following that charge, pushing the envelope toward what Anthony J. Tether, its director since 2001, describes as “the far side” of science and technology development.
Speaking at DARPA’s 25th Systems and Technology Symposium in Anaheim, Calif., in August, Tether contrasted DARPA’s work with that of the services, which tend to concentrate on “the near and mid-side” and improving “concepts and systems that we know about.”
DARPA focuses on new and sometimes radical concepts and systems, many considered higher-risk because their feasibility isn’t known, he told participants.
“We search for those ideas worldwide that may make a tremendous difference, and whose time has come to bring them to the near side as fast as possible,” Tether said. “DARPA bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and new military capabilities, and has been doing so since our beginning.”
In its earliest days, DARPA -- which initially had no “Defense” in front of its name -- focused on accelerating the development of U.S. space launch and satellite capabilities. The agency developed the Saturn V rocket that enabled the United States to launch the Apollo missions to the moon.
DARPA also developed the first surveillance satellites that gave U.S. presidents intelligence about Russian missile-program activities. “DARPA was not only preventing surprise, but was now creating surprise for our adversaries,” Tether said.
DARPA branched out to other fields, too. It began the information revolution by creating the ARPANET that led to today’s Internet. The system began by interconnecting computers at four university research sites in the late 1960s. By 1972, it had grown to include 37 computers. Now, Tether pointed out, the Internet it led to is approaching 1 billion connections.
DARPA developed technologies that revolutionized warfare: stealth aircraft, advanced precision munitions and the Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles used in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
But not all of DARPA’s past accomplishments are as well known, Tether said. He cited the development of new materials such as gallium arsenide, used in high-speed circuits, and new metals such as beryllium that are stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum.
Other advances include solid-state photon detectors that led to today’s night-vision capabilities and microwave and millimeter-wave monolithic integrated circuits, or MIMICS, that enable cell phones and miniature global position system receivers to work. DARPA’s work in lithography enabled a microchip smaller than a thumbnail to hold 100 billion transistors. The agency also developed the computer mouse, an effort to make computers more user-friendly.
Meanwhile, Tether said recent DARPA accomplishments are giving U.S. forces fundamentally new capabilities. He’s a firm believer that the key to success in future military operations rests in the network, and has the agency busy developing several network-centric capabilities.
One that’s already deployed, the Command Post of the Future, enabled computers to serve as virtual command posts that enable commanders and platoon leaders to conduct operations from wherever they happen to be.
Another “game changer” is the Network Centric Radio System, a technology that enables previously incompatible radios to communicate with each other. “An Army soldier can now talk to a Marine, or to an Air Force aircraft or a Navy ship,” Tether said.
Yet another DARPA technology Tether said is making a difference is the WASP micro air vehicle that weighs less than a pound and can be launched with a simple hand-throw. The device has a camera that sends high-quality video to the warfighter, providing real-time information on locations important to them.
“Marines use WASP today,” Tether said. “They call it their guardian angel. It watches over and protects them.”
Tether ran down a laundry list of other technologies under development at DARPA he said could prove to be “future game changers” if they’re successful. One aims to extract high-quality military jet fuel from U.S. crops. Another could lead to a machine capable of translating foreign language speech and text as well as, if not better than, an experienced linguist.
Other technologies DARPA is seeking to develop include an aircraft able to refuel and remain airborne autonomously for five years or even longer, and an autonomous ground vehicle able to remove forces from harm’s way and save lives on the battlefield. Another is to create a prosthesis to replace an arm lost in combat that’s so capable “the soldier could learn to play Dixieland on the piano,” Tether said.
One project seeks to develop a computer able to process more than a billion million instructions per second. Such a high-speed computer would be revolutionary, Tether said. “This new capability will dramatically reduce the time it takes to design, test and bring an idea to reality, giving us a great strategic and tactical advantage over the rest of the world,” he said.
Fifty years after DARPA’s inception, Tether said, he’s proud to report that the agency has stayed true to its original charter. It’s remained “an organization willing to take a bet on an idea long before it is proven,” he said. It’s “a place for people with ideas too crazy, too far out, too risky, even considered by some as bad, that have turned out to be major game changers for the U.S.”
Tether pointed to the strategic and tactical dominance the United States has achieved in many areas during the past 50 years. “If the technology was a game-changer, chances are that DARPA had a role,” he said.
The threats the United States faces today are far different from those of 50 years ago, Tether said. Gone is the Soviet threat, replaced by new adversaries and threats such as those that launched the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “The urgency of maintaining technological surprise is as acute as ever,” Tether said in a statement released for DARPA’s 50th anniversary observance.
“In this time of uncertainty, DARPA’s mission remains constant: anticipate all challenges and discover the technical means to conquer those challenges,” he told attendees at the 25th Systems and Technology Symposium. DARPA continues its work aimed at “helping our nation prepare for an uncertain future, using the power of ideas to bridge the gap,” he said.
Tether, the agency’s longest-serving director, said in an anniversary statement he’s honored to lead it into its sixth decade. “Everyone at DARPA feels a personal commitment to continuing to deliver revolutionary technologies in support of our men and women in uniform,” he said.