For sixty years, DARPA has held to a singular and enduring mission: to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.
The genesis of that mission and of DARPA itself dates to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and a commitment by the United States that, from that time forward, it would be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises. Working with innovators inside and outside of government, DARPA has repeatedly delivered on that mission, transforming revolutionary concepts and even seeming impossibilities into practical capabilities. The ultimate results have included not only game-changing military capabilities such as precision weapons and stealth technology, but also such icons of modern civilian society such as the Internet, automated voice recognition and language translation, and Global Positioning System receivers small enough to embed in myriad consumer devices.
DARPA explicitly reaches for transformational change instead of incremental advances. But it does not perform its engineering alchemy in isolation. It works within an innovation ecosystem that includes academic, corporate and governmental partners, with a constant focus on the Nation’s military Services, which work with DARPA to create new strategic opportunities and novel tactical options. For decades, this vibrant, interlocking ecosystem of diverse collaborators has proven to be a nurturing environment for the intense creativity that DARPA is designed to cultivate.
DARPA comprises approximately 220 government employees in six technical offices, including nearly 100 program managers, who together oversee about 250 research and development programs.
DARPA goes to great lengths to identify, recruit and support excellent program managers—extraordinary individuals who are at the top of their fields and are hungry for the opportunity to push the limits of their disciplines. These leaders, who are at the very heart of DARPA’s history of success, come from academia, industry and government agencies for limited stints, generally three to five years. That deadline fuels the signature DARPA urgency to achieve success in less time than might be considered reasonable in a conventional setting.
Program managers address challenges broadly, spanning the spectrum from deep science to systems to capabilities, but ultimately they are driven by the desire to make a difference. They define their programs, set milestones, meet with their performers and assiduously track progress. But they are also constantly probing for the next big thing in their fields, communicating with leaders in the scientific and engineering community to identify new challenges and potential solutions.
Program managers report to DARPA’s office directors and their deputies, who are responsible for charting their offices’ technical directions, hiring program managers and overseeing program execution. The technical staff is also supported by experts in security, legal and contracting issues, finance, human resources and communications. These are the people who make it possible for program managers to achieve big things during their relatively short tenures.
At the Agency level, the DARPA Director and Deputy Director approve each new program and review ongoing programs, while setting Agency-wide priorities and ensuring a balanced investment portfolio.
DARPA benefits greatly from special statutory hiring authorities and alternative contracting vehicles that allow the Agency to take quick advantage of opportunities to advance its mission. These legislated capabilities have helped DARPA continue to execute its mission effectively.
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