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

M16 - National Archives Image

The M16 Assault Rifle is the standard-issue shoulder weapon in the U.S. military. Designed to fire small, high-velocity rounds (5.56 mm caliber vs. 7.62 mm), the weapon is relatively small and light, thereby significantly decreasing the overall load warfighters needed to carry.

The M16 is based on a design (the Colt AR-15) that had already been rejected by the Chief of Staff of the Army in favor of the heavier 7.62 mm M14. Colt brought the weapon to DARPA in 1962.

Through Project AGILE, DARPA purchased 1,000 AR-15s and issued them to combat troops in Southeast Asia for field trials, to prove that the high-velocity 5.56 mm round had satisfactory performance. The subsequent DARPA report documenting the lethality of the AR-15 was instrumental in motivating the Secretary of Defense to reconsider the Army’s decision and this led to a the first large-scale procurement in 1966 of a modified AR-15—the M16—for deployment in the Vietnam conflict.

Shakey the Robot
Charles Rosen, head of the Machine Learning Group at the Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI International) developed a proposal in 1964 to build a robot that at the time would have featured the intelligence and capabilities that had only been depicted in science fiction books and movies. Even then, Rosen knew that ARPA might appreciate the potential and provide support, which the Agency did in 1966. Six years later, Rosen’s team literally rolled out Shakey, so-named because it shook as it moved. More importantly, Shakey was the first mobile robot with enough artificial intelligence to navigate on its own through a set of rooms. Among its component technologies were a TV camera, a range finder, radio communications, and a set of drive wheels controlled with stepping motors.
PreStealth Stealth—the QT-2 quiet aircraft
The efficacy of nighttime aerial reconnaissance operations in Southeast Asia was diminished due to engine noise that provided the enemy with advanced warning of approaching aircraft. With an eye on making quiet aircraft that could better serve this reconnaissance mission, ARPA funded the Lockheed Missile and Space Company to develop a quiet, propeller-driven aircraft. This fast-paced program quickly yielded a successful prototype, the QT-2, which in 1968 was deployed and proven in combat. The program transitioned to the U.S. Army, which sponsored a limited production of an advanced version of the quiet aircraft, the YO-3A.
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Explosive Forming
Between 1968 and 1972, ARPA supported an effort proposed by the University of Denver to use explosives for forming metal parts for aerospace applications. The underwater process relied on a mold for the part over which was placed a plate of the metal alloy to be used. This preparation, when immersed in water, would feel the shock of an explosive charge to such a degree that the metal plate would be forced against the die. The process could reproducibly deliver serviceable parts out of steel, aluminum, titanium, and Inconel, a superalloy. The effort opened a new way to produce a variety made of aerospace components, including engine parts such as engine diffusers and afterburner rings for Pratt &Whitney engines that powered the storied SR71. The variation of the process also was deployed for many years to weld superstructures to the decks of U.S. Navy warships.
The Mother of all Demos

Conceived by Douglas Engelbart and developed by him and colleagues at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), the groundbreaking computer framework known as oN-Line System (NLS), jointly funded by ARPA and the Air Force, evolved throughout the decade. In what became known as "The Mother of All Demos"—because it demonstrated the revolutionary features of NLS as well as never-before-seen video presentation technologies—Engelbart unveiled NLS in San Francisco on December 9, 1968, to a large audience at the Fall Joint Computer Conference. Engelbart's terminal was linked to a large-format video projection system loaned by the NASA Ames Research Center and via telephone lines to a SDS 940 computer (designed specifically for time-sharing among multiple users) 30 miles away in Menlo Park, California, at the Augmentation Research Center, which Engelbart founded at SRI. On a 22-foot-high screen with video insets, the audience could see Engelbart manipulate the mouse and watch as members of his team in Menlo Park joined in the presentation.

With the arrival of the ARPA Network at SRI in 1969, the time-sharing technology that seemed practical with a small number of users became impractical over a distributed network. NLS, however, opened pathways toward today’s astounding range of information technologies.

ARPANET and the Origins of the Internet
ARPA research played a central role in launching the “Information Revolution,” including developing or furthering much of the conceptual basis for ARPANET, a pioneering network for sharing digital resources among geographically separated computers. Its initial demonstration in 1969 led to the Internet, whose world-changing consequences unfold on a daily basis today. A seminal step in this sequence took place in 1968 when ARPA contracted BBN Technologies to build the first routers, which one year later enabled ARPANET to become operational.
Compact Turbofan Engines

Building on the momentum of jet engine research prior to ARPA’s creation, the Agency joined with the U.S. Army in 1965 on the Individual Mobility System (IMS) project (1965-1969) with the goal of extending the range and endurance of the Bell Rocket Belt developed for the Army in the 1950s. With DARPA funding, Bell replaced the vertical lift rocket system with a compact, highly efficient turbofan engine that Williams Research Corporation was developing.

The DARPA project helped bring the WR-19 turbofan engine into full development. It also brought it to the attention of the U.S. Air Force, for which the engine demonstrated excellent horizontal flight characteristics. The engine was adapted for use in the new Air Force cruise missile program. The U.S. Navy also became interested in the Williams Research engines as it adapted cruise missiles for maritime applications.

By the 1990s, improved versions of the Williams engine would power all the air, surface, and subsurface launched cruise missiles in the Navy and Air Force inventories. Later incarnation of these propulsion technology developments would power the AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles and Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles in Desert Storm in 1991 and in subsequent conflicts.

Torpedo Propulsion

In 1969, the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State began work, under U.S. Navy sponsorship, on a lithium-based thermal energy system for torpedo application. The system, known as the Stored Chemical Energy Propulsion System (SCEPS), was applicable to the high-power, short-duration mission of a torpedo. In a subsequent effort to further torpedo capabilities, DARPA subsequently selected the SCEPS heat source for use with an engine design that could be suitable for deployment in a long-endurance undersea vehicle.

One of the engineering obstacles that the DARPA adaptation of the heat source overcame was the development of long-life injectors of SF6 (one of the SCEPS chemical ingredients) that could survive in the system’s molten lithium bath. The Navy SCEPS program, which had also been experiencing some difficulty with injectors, adapted the DARPA technology. SCEPS became the power plant for the MK 50 Torpedo, which the Navy first authorized for use in late 1992.

Beryllium Mirror Research

From 1968 to 1972, ARPA funded a program with the Perkin Elmer Corporation to develop the technology for fabricating large, stable, low-weight mirrors from beryllium, a featherweight metal, for use in space applications. The early focus of the program was in developing and evaluating improved forms of beryllium. Perkin Elmer was successful in improving the thermal stability of beryllium surfaces tenfold, and developing materials-processing techniques (powder metallurgy, hot isostatic processing, pressureless sintering) for making it possible to fabricate large beryllium structures.

Further ARPA- funded efforts led to surface-polishing techniques to dramatically reduce scattering of infrared wavelengths, the successful development of thin-film coatings techniques, and a demonstration of the long-term stability of beryllium surfaces. DoD applications included 1) the all-beryllium, 15-inch aperture, long-wave infrared (IR) telescope system for the Midcourse Airborne Target Signature program run by what was then known as the Advanced Ballistic Missile Defense Agency; 2) the fabrication of a lightweight, 40-inch, aspheric mirror for the U.S. Air Force; and 3) experimental near-net-shape production of a key component of the Trident 11 MK6 guidance system. NASA also applied the technology in the form of a 85-cm beryllium mirror assembly for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)'s IR Telescope Technology Testbed for eventual use in NASA's Space Infrared Telescope Facility (later renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope), which was launched in 2003 and as of 2018 was still in operation.

Camp Sentinel Radar

The Camp Sentinel Radar penetrated foliage to detect infiltrators near U.S. deployments and was a fast turnaround,Vietnam-era development of advanced technology. Camp Sentinel responded to a military need for intruder detection with enough accuracy to direct fire. DARPA recommended a foliage penetration radar, which was completed within two years at a direct cost of $2 million. Camp Sentinel radar prototypes were field-tested in Vietnam in 1968 and retained by the troops for use for the rest of the war.

The Camp Sentinel technology pioneered the development of radar in hostile jungle conditions, which feature absorption and refraction by foliage in high-clutter environments, among other challenges. The Camp Sentinel radar project developed clutter rejection processing techniques, which were also later used by commercial acoustic-based intruder detectors.

| History | ISR |
Anti-Submarine Warfare

With the blue water threat of free-ranging, nuclear-armed Soviet submarines coming to a head in 1971, the Department of Defense (DoD) assigned DARPA a singular mission: Revamp the U.S. military’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities to track enemy subs under the open ocean where the U.S. Navy’s existing Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) was falling short. At the time, the U.S. Navy was already working on what would become its Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System, or SURTASS, through which surface ships towed long, mobile arrays of sensors to listen for submarine activity. Telemetry and data-handling issues greatly limited the system’s capabilities.

That’s when DARPA committed funds for the LAMBDA program to modify oil-industry-designed seismic towed arrays so they could detect submarine movement. DARPA-funded scientists began experiments at submarine depths, and soon generated spectacular results. In 1981, the DoD gave quick approval for production of a LAMBDA-enhanced SURTASS array, without requiring further study, a highly unusual decision for a program that had experienced a major technology shift late in the game. The system—which with DARPA participation would become enhanced by way of leading-edge computational tools, satellite-based data linkages, and computer networking—would become the Navy’s go-to method for tracking mobile Soviet subs for the remainder of the Cold War. By 1985, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman was so confident in his force’s ability to keep tabs on elusive Soviet boomers (a nickname for ballistic missile submarines), he declared that in the event the Cold War turned hot, he would attack Soviet subs “in the first five minutes of the war.”

Glassy Carbon

From 1971 to 1974, ARPA supported research on "glassy" carbon, a unique foam material composed of pure carbon and that combined low weight, high strength, and chemical inertness. The program led to techniques for producing the material with an exceptionally porous, high surface area combined with high rigidity, low resistance to fluid flow, and resistance to very high temperatures in a non-oxidizing environment.

Eyed originally for roles in electro-chemistry because of its high surface area, the material proved suitable for surgical implants, especially heart valves. Development of the valves began about three years after the end of the ARPA program, with production commencing in 1985. In 1990, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its approval for using glassy carbon in implants in a valve market that grew within the decade to 100,000 units and a market value of $200 million. A related form, pyrolytic carbon, remains common in the inner orifice and leaflets of artificial valves.

Rare-Earth Magnets
New materials that perform better than previous ones or with unprecedented properties open pathways to new and improved technologies. F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, still in use by the U.S. Air Force today, owe much of their performance advancements to materials technologies that emerged from DARPA materials development programs conducted in the 1970s and early 1980s. One of many notable successes from these efforts was the development of rare-earth permanent magnets with magnetic strengths far stronger than conventional magnetic materials and, in some cases, over larger operational conditions. The samarium- and cobalt-based rare-earth magnetic material Sm2Co17, for example, remains reliable over the entire militarily relevant temperature range of -55°C to 125°C. These magnets ultimately assumed a role in a key component of the AN/ALQ-135 electronic warfare system, permitting operation of the F-15 to 70,000 feet in altitude.
ARPA Changes Names
The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) gained a “D” when it was renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1972. The Agency’s name briefly reverted to ARPA in 1993, only to have the “D” restored in 1996.
Gallium Arsenide
Beginning in the mid-1970s, DARPA orchestrated extensive research into the semiconductor material gallium arsenide, which could host faster transistors operating at higher power than could silicon. The work would contribute to subsequent DARPA-spurred achievement in the 1980s to miniaturize receivers for GPS. That technology, in conjunction with DARPA-developed advances in inertial navigation, expanded the Nation’s arsenal of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) through such innovations as “bolt-on” Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) GPS kits, which gave otherwise unguided or laser-guided munitions new, high-precision capabilities. Key to these developments were gallium arsenide chips developed through DARPA’s Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit program, which also enabled the radio frequency (RF) and millimeter-wave circuits needed in precision weapons.
TCP-IP - IEEE Image 1974
In a seminal moment in the development of the Internet, DARPA’s Robert Kahn (who joined the Information Processing Techniques Office as a program manager in 1972) asked Vinton Cerf of Stanford University to collaborate on a project to develop new communications protocols for sending packets of data across the ARPANET. That query resulted in the creation of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP), most often seen together as TCP/IP. These protocols remain a mainstay of the Internet’s underlying technical foundation.