WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis says the U.S. needs to keep technologically ahead of adversaries and that means, among other things, quicker advances in smartly developed and financed tools and weapons.
He better dial 703-526-6630. Or drive 4.2 miles south of his Pentagon office.
That is where DARPA has its headquarters and that is where some of the answers to what he seeks may already be brewing.
DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — was founded early in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower in response to Sputnik and other early Soviet missile achievements that suggested the U.S. might be falling behind its Cold War rival.
The agency encourages, funds, and manages research carried out by the military, private industry and academia to fulfill its mission of avoiding and creating technological surprise.
Openness to new ideas, risk-taking, and tolerance of failure are essential elements of DARPA innovation, according to its publications. Proposals are rigorously scrutinized, but no idea is dismissed out of hand as too bold or crazy to consider.
Even when naysayers say no and others scoff.
DARPA has produced, among other things, research that developed previously unreachable levels of stealth effectiveness and led to the creation of the F-117A stealth fighter and ultimately the B-2 bomber. Both of lynchpins of today’s Air Force.
They also developed armor that increased survivability from an improvised explosive device (IED) attack by a factor of 10, when experts said an improvement by a factor of only two would be possible.
To try to gather data that would help them understand and ultimately reduce IED injuries, the military equipped soldiers with DARPA-developed pressure-wave measurement sensors to measure those damaging impacts.
And DARPA developed drones.
DARPA embraces the phrase “changed the world” as a way to focus on transformative innovation as opposed to incremental improvements in existing technology. Now more than ever, the Defense Department is placing a premium on innovation. With a myriad of projects spanning the secure sharing of information to a new type of weapons, DARPA is building on its track record of providing what is needed or imagined.
They include a ghost ship that maneuvers on its own, sniper bullets that track the target much like a heat-seeking missile, the technology to climb walls like Spider-Man, stealthy hybrid bikes for covert operations, and technology to allow airborne observers to peer through smoke and haze to the ground below.
One example of a more public ongoing project is DARPA’s Tactical Undersea Network Architecture (TUNA) program that restores connectivity to the U.S. military when traditional tactical networks are down or unavailable is complete.
The goal is to produce a “Networks of the Sea” system that can last up to 30 days in an ocean environment until primary communications are restored. A second stage prototype was to begin testing last year.
DARPA’s prowess is well appreciated by potential U.S. foes. Trying to counter the work is a challenge, so they do what they can to emulate the creative process. For example, last July China’s military set up a department modeled on DARPA to develop state-of-the-art weapons such as stealth aircraft and electromagnetic cannons.