Research Agency Celebrates 50 Years of Technological Evolution
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 11, 2008 When Russia surprised the world a half century ago by launching the Sputnik satellite through Earth’s atmosphere, the ripple effect spurred the White House into action.
In response to the Russian gambit, President Dwight D. Eisenhower in February 1958 commissioned the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Fifty years later, the agency’s mission remains clear: prevent future technological surprises for the United States and create them for the nation’s enemies.
“The man in the White House, Dwight Eisenhower, didn't scare easy,” Vice President Richard B. Cheney said here last night at a dinner honoring 50 years of DARPA. “He had complete, justified confidence in this nation's ability to reclaim the technological edge and to hold it from then on.”
Several hundred past and present DARPA employees gathered to celebrate a half century of success that produced the Saturn V rocket that enabled U.S. Apollo missions to fly to the moon, stealth aircraft, guided munitions, body armor, and an early version of today’s Internet, to name some of the agency’s mainstays.
“If you've been associated with this agency, you're the kind of person who lives and breathes technology, and you have a place in the story of the past 50 years,” said Cheney, the evening’s keynote speaker. “It's a story of boldness and excellence; of visionary, high-yield projects; and of service above self.
“And all of these have been directed to the highest purposes that a citizen can assume: the safety of our people, the security of our nation, and the survival of freedom itself,” he said.
Cheney, who served as secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush, remarked that there was a shortage of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, during Operation Desert Storm. Thanks to DARPA, the technology advanced through the 1990s, and unmanned aircraft now play a vital role in current U.S. operations, he said.
“We've been able to use it all the time in both Afghanistan and Iraq -- for reconnaissance, for remote sensing, and to strike the enemy,” said Cheney, noting that Marines in Iraq refer to the small-scale UAVs overhead as “guardian angels.”
DARPA’s responsiveness is possible because technological innovation is its sole guiding principle. To maintain an entrepreneurial atmosphere and the flow of new ideas, the agency hires program managers for only four to six years, frequently replenishing the organization with fresh perspective, according to DARPA’s Web site.
In contrast to the private sector, program managers understand their short timelines at DARPA and therefore are willing to pursue high-risk technical ideas, even those with a reasonable chance of failure, the Web site said. Without bureaucratic distractions and with few institutional interests, the agency pursues a largely unabated mission: radical innovation for national security.
“DARPA is the Department of Defense’s only research agency not tied to a specific operational mission,” said Anthony Tether, the agency’s director. “DARPA supplies technological options for the entire department, and is designed to be a specialized ‘technological engine’ for transforming DoD.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England told audience members that the United States depends on the agency to continue providing state-of-the-art technology to the nation’s servicemembers.
“The nation is relying on DARPA to dramatically move the frontier of technology rapidly forward in a way that we can put it into work in the field,” he said.
While the next half century holds uncertainty, the continuing success of DARPA will remain constant, England said.
“We can only imagine what the next 50 years will bring,” he continued. “But we can be assured that DARPA will continue to ensure that America retains its technological edge.”