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DARPA History

History of DARPA and its accomplishments

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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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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.
DARPA’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) program was a multiyear research and development effort to increase the technical knowledge base and advance critical technologies to make long-duration hypersonic flight a reality. Falcon HTV-2 is an unmanned, rocket-launched, maneuverable aircraft that glides through the Earth’s atmosphere at incredibly fast speeds—Mach 20 (approximately 13,000 miles per hour). At HTV-2 speeds, flight time between New York City and Los Angeles would be less than 12 minutes.
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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.
For years, DARPA and its Service partners pursued the technically daunting task of developing high-power-density, wide-band-gap semiconductor components in the recognition that, whatever the end-state task, U.S. forces would need electronics that could operate and engage at increasing range. The result was a series of fundamental advances involving gallium nitride-enabled arrays, which now provide significant benefits in a wide range of applications in the national security domain.