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DARPA History

History of DARPA and its accomplishments

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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.


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.

Under a joint program (Teal Rain) with the U.S. Navy, DARPA funded the development of the first endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), Amber, which in 1988 flew for more than 38 straight hours and reached an altitude of 25,000 feet. The Amber demonstration featured innovations in many technologies (digital flight controls, composite materials, microprocessors, and satellite navigation) and led to the Gnat 750 and the Tier 2 Predator. DARPA also supported development of the Global Hawk, a related high-altitude UAV system. These platforms have been transformative with respect to warfighting and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities.

The Agency initiated the ARPA Midcourse Optical Station (AMOS) program in 1961 with the goal of developing an astronomical-quality observatory to obtain precise measurements and images of satellites, payloads, and other space objects re-entering the atmosphere from space. ARPA located the facility atop Mount Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.

By 1969, the quality and potential of AMOS had been demonstrated, and a second phase began to measure properties of re-entry bodies at the facility under the Advanced Ballistic Reentry System Project. In the late 1970s, successful space object measurements continued in the infrared and visible ranges, and laser illumination and ranging were initiated.

Other developments such as the compensated imaging program were tested successfully at AMOS. By 1984, the AMOS twin infrared telescopes had become a highly automated system and DARPA transferred it to the U.S. Air Force as one of the primary sensors of the Air Force Space Tracking System. In 1993, the Air Force renamed AMOS as the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Site.


On November 6, 1959, Cornell University signed a contract with ARPA to conduct development studies for a large-scale ionospheric radar probe and how such an instrument might also serve in radioastronomy and other scientific fields. Four years later, on November 1, 1963, an inauguration ceremony was held in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, for the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory, later to be known more generally as the Arecibo Observatory.

Its telescope "dish"—the largest in the world until 2016 with the completion in China of the FAST dish telescope—is 1,000 feet (305 meters) in diameter,  167 feet (51 meters) deep, and covers an area of approximately 20 acres (0.08 square kilometers). Development of the Arecibo facility was initially supported as part of the DEFENDER program, a broad-based missile defense program. The observatory was designed to study the structure of the upper ionosphere and its interactions with electromagnetic communications signals.

The observatory now is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), a national research center operated by SRI International, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), and Universidad Metropolitana (UMET) through a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF). Researchers have tapped the observatory for their studies of ionospheric physics, radar and radio astronomy, aeronomy, and dynamics of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The facility also helped NASA select lunar landing sites as well as landing sites for the Viking missions to Mars. The observatory remains in use today.