The Functionality of DARPA is Politically Precarious
After sixty years, the R&D agency is still exceptionally functional. But government leaders do not understand how to replicate its success, nor the unique autonomy that underpins it.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is likely the most well-known R&D agency in history. Founded in 1958, it is an agency within the U.S. Department of Defense, responsible for leading the development of technologies that maintain and advance the capabilities and technological superiority of the U.S. military. DARPA’s innovations are numerous: it has played a key role in developing both explicitly military technologies like stealth aircraft, precision-guided munitions, and drones, as well as civilian technologies, from semiconductors and superalloys to, famously, the graphical user interface (GUI) and ARPANET, the predecessor of the modern internet. Despite a long list of wins, DARPA is an exceptionally small organization. For the financial year 2023, the budget request for DARPA was just $4.1 billion, roughly 0.5% of the Defense Department’s $773 billion budget request for the year.1 The organization’s staff count has historically been kept very low at about one hundred to two hundred people.