Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyAbout UsHistory and Timeline

Where the Future Becomes Now

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created with a national sense of urgency in February 1958 amidst one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Cold War and the already-accelerating pace of technology. In the months preceding the official authorization for the agency’s creation, Department of Defense Directive Number 5105.15, the Soviet Union had launched an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, and the world’s second satellite, Sputnik II… More

Ceramic Turbine: Brittle Materials Design
1975

ARPA began a program to demonstrate and encourage the use of brittle high-temperature materials in engineering design, with an eye on ceramic components for gas turbine applications. The approach included major efforts in ceramic design, materials development, fabrication process development, and test and evaluation methodology. By the end of the program in 1979, one of the performers, a team with Ford, demonstrated that design with brittle materials in highly stressed applications is possible and, in particular, that ceramics are feasible as major structural components in gas turbine engines. This program started the "Ceramic Fever" that spread throughout the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The successful demonstration of ceramics in a gas turbine environment led to the establishment of ceramic programs in virtually every automotive or engine company in the world, in other U.S. government agencies, and in several foreign countries.

HAVE BLUE and the Origin of Stealth Technology
1977

In the early 1970s, a DARPA study brought to light the extent of vulnerabilities of U.S. aircraft and their on-board equipment to detection and attack by adversaries, who were deploying new advanced air-defense missile systems. These systems integrated radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and air-launched radar-guided missiles, all networked with early-warning, acquisition, and targeting radars, and coordinated within sophisticated command and control frameworks.

To mitigate these growing threats, DARPA embarked on a program to develop strategies and technologies for reducing radar detectability, including the reduction of radar cross section through a combination of shaping (to minimize the number of radar return spikes) and radar absorbent materials; infrared shielding, exhaust cooling and shaping, and enhanced heat dissipation; reduced visual signatures; active signature cancellation; inlet shielding; and windshield coatings.

In the mid-1970s, DARPA oversaw the development of HAVE Blue, the first practical combat stealth aircraft, which made its first test flight by the end of 1977. This led to the procurement by the Air Force of the F-117A stealth fighter, which became operational in October 1983. A follow-on development, the TACIT Blue aircraft, could operate radar sensors while maintaining its own low radar cross-section. This laid foundations for development of the B-2 stealth bomber.

Stealth aircraft destroyed key targets in conflicts in Iraq, both in the 1991 Desert Storm operation and in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom; in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001; and in Libya in 2011. Complementing the key contributions of stealth capabilities in these missions was Department of Defense’s use of other technologies, including DARPA-enabled precision-guided munitions, which were deployed by stealth and non-stealth aircraft. Since their initial development and deployment, stealth technologies have been applied to a wide range of weapon systems and military platforms, among them missiles, helicopters, ground vehicles and ships.

Assault Breaker
1978
In 1978, DARPA integrated a number of technologies—including lasers, electro-optical sensors, microelectronics, data processors, and radars—important for precision guided munitions (PGMs) under its Assault Breaker program. Over a four-year period, Assault Breaker laid the technological foundation for several smart-weapon systems that were ultimately fielded with high success. Among these systems are the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), which integrated PGMs with advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems developed with DARPA support; the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles; a U.S. Air Force air-to-ground missile with terminally guided submunitions; the long-range, quick-response, surface-to-surface Army Tactical Missile System (ATMS), which featured all-weather, day/night capability effective against mobile and other targets; and the Brilliant Anti-armor Tank (BAT) submunition, which used acoustic sensors on its wings to detect and target tanks.
Excimer Lasers
1978
Building on earlier joint efforts, the U.S. Navy and DARPA initiated a new joint program in 1978 with the objective of achieving a laser communications link between aircraft, space platforms or mirrors, and submerged submarines. The ground-based laser-space mirror part of this effort built largely on DARPA efforts toward high-powered, gas-phase excimer lasers (that could emit in the shorter, more water-penetrating region of the electromagnetic spectrum) that had led to the demonstration of a workable, moderate power, laser-optical receiver combination. Additional DARPA work on compensating for atmospheric effects on laser propagation fed into this project and were transferred to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The project yielded an efficient laser-receiver and a narrowband, matched-wavelength excimer-Raman converter laser system, which was used in successful demonstrations in 1988 of aircraft-to-submerged-submarine communication in 1988, after transfer of the Submarine Laser Communications-Satellite (SLCSAT) program to the Navy in 1987. Soon after, however, the Navy and DARPA agreed that the risks and expenses in developing new solid-state for the blue-green lasers would perhaps be more acceptable than those associated with going ahead with the gas-excimer laser systems in space. Excimer lasers would expand into medical arenas, especially for corrective eye surgery.
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Parts for the Hubble Space Telescope
1978
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Hubble Telescope takes the clearest images of the universe and transmits these to Earth via its antennas. From 1978 to 1980, DARPA funded the design, fabrication, delivery and installation of two antenna booms for the Hubble Space Telescope to demonstrate the advantages of metal-matrix composites. Made of a graphite-fiber/aluminum matrix, these booms permit radio frequency conduction while simultaneously serving as structural supports. Deploying this dual-use composite material resulted in a 60% weight savings over an alternative boom- design candidate. Through this new material technology, DARPA met NASA’s design requirements for weight, stiffness, and dimensional stability. DARPA also contributed to the Hubble’s optical successes. The telescope incorporates algorithms and concepts pioneered by DARPA’s Directed Energy Program in the late 1970s and early 1980s, by which mirrors can be deliberately deformed to correct for wavefront imperfections.
Aluminum-Lithium Alloys
1980

In the late 1970's, DARPA initiated a program with Lockheed Space Systems Division to develop the technology of welding aluminum-lithium alloys, which would combine high stiffness with low density and therefore lower weight. At the time, no one understood how to prepare these materials for welding and how to control impurities in the metals and welding process. Such control would be critical for producing materials repeatedly with predictable behavior and performance.

Within 18 months, metallurgists at Lockheed had developed the welding techniques for the 80/90 Al/Li alloy and applied it to the construction of space hardware. One of the most impressive structures made from this material was the Titan missile payload adapter, which was 14 feet in diameter and 17 feet high and fabricated from 3" thick metal plate. By using this alloy, a 10% weight saving was achieved compared to the prior incarnation of that rocket components. The weight savings translated into millions of dollars at cost savings when it came to delivering hardware to obit. This material system made it into classified DoD applications as well. Lockheed scaled the process up to 400,000 lb/year of Al-Li alloys for the next four years.

Defense Sciences Office
1980
DARPA established the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) in 1980, combining the Nuclear Monitoring Research Office, materials science research, and cybernetic technology efforts into a single office. Since its inception, DSO has spawned two additional technology offices at DARPA: the Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) in 1992 and the Biological Technologies Office (BTO) in 2014.
MIRACL
1980

In the mid-1970s, high-energy lasers showed great promise for anti-air warfare and in particular anti-ballistic missile defense. DARPA supported many technology and early system concepts for tactical high-energy lasers. This support culminated in DARPA funding the development of the Baseline Demonstration Laser (BDL) and the Navy ARPA Chemical Laser (NACL), the latter with a joint funding arrangement with the Navy.

Concurrent with these systems programs, DARPA funded the Special Laser Technology Development Program, which led to many advanced components and concepts. These concepts formed the bases for several developmental laser systems. Most noteworthy were the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), a massive megawatt device that relied on rocket-engine-like combustion and that first lased in 1980, and the Chemical Oxygen-Iodine Laser (COIL). The latter forms the basis of the Air Force’s Airborne Laser (ABL). In a later demonstration, the MIRACL system shot down a live, short-range rocket at White Sands Missile Range. The success led to the initiation of an operational system concept study by TRW to develop a Theater High-Energy Laser (THEL). Although the system demonstrated the capability of in-flight destruction of live artillery and the destruction of several rockets in a single day, the program ended in 2006. Even so, high-energy laser development has continued toward a pathway of operational capabilities.

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