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At the Age of 50, it’s Time for DARPA to Rethink its Future 

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By John Paul Parker 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency just celebrated its 50th anniversary. DARPA has been heralded as a model of what can be right about government.

The agency’s challenges, however, are about to get a lot harder now that the post 9/11 spending spree is over and budgets are expected to decline.  

To thrive in this new era, DARPA will have to experiment with a new business model for achieving innovation.

DARPA is famous for inventing revolutionary new capabilities. ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, is perhaps the most famous. But the business model for DARPA to get technologies out of the lab and into the hands of the end user has been remarkably non-innovative. According to the agency’s charter, it is not the role of the organization to produce technology that directly addresses a military need.

The traditional approach is for DARPA to produce a potential breakthrough technical capability and then rely on market forces to return that innovation to the military. The development of the Internet is an example of how this traditionally works. The feasibility of networking multiple computers was pioneered by DARPA in 1969, but it would take the commercial adoption of the World Wide Web in the 1990s to make the Internet a useful tool for either civilian or military use.  

And that’s the problem with the passive, market-driven model of technology adoption: Sometimes it takes a long time to catch on, or evolve in a way not envisioned by the creators.

Responding to Pentagon complaints that technology transition was taking too long, when it happened at all, DARPA shifted over the past eight years to a more active, albeit bureaucratic, model of technology transition. DARPA program managers were expected to seek out and obtain advocacy from the military for their projects, or else their funding was in jeopardy. The Holy Grail became a memorandum of agreement, a quasi-legal document between DARPA and a military customer that specifies the details of how technology will transition — should the research bear fruit — to a formal military program.   

DARPA has garnered credit for many technology success stories that have made a difference in current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But critics of the agency have increasingly complained that DARPA has sacrificed its mission of long-term pioneering research in order to emphasize near-term technology transition.

Critics note that requiring that DARPA program managers secure technology transition agreements with the military in order to keep their funding has skewed research away from risky, but potentially revolutionary work. Keeping military customers happy by focusing on near-term mission relevance can become a driving factor in the conduct of the research. It has shifted attention and resources into “demo engineering” in a quest to satisfy doubts about the ultimate utility of still-to-be researched technology.    

The other side of the technology transition equation is equally difficult — the defense acquisition system that is supposed to incorporate new technologies into weapon and information systems. Although volumes have been written about the need for defense acquisition reform, two key features of that process seriously impede the fielding of potentially revolutionary capabilities, and lie at the heart of why DARPA has difficulty getting these capabilities into the field.

The first is the reliance of defense acquisition programs on formal and documented requirements, which specify the need and expected functionality of any new capability.  

The fundamental problem with requirements is the inability to specify a revolutionary new capability before the details of how it could be achieved are known. This is best expressed by John Chambers, editor of the Oxford Companion to American Military History, when he wrote: “None of the most important weapons transforming warfare in the 20th century — the airplane, tank, radar, jet engine, helicopter, electronic computer, not even the atomic bomb — owed its initial development to a doctrinal requirement or request of the military.”   

The second issue confounding the process of adopting advanced technologies is the perceived risk associated with introducing anything “immature,” meaning new.   
Guidance to the Pentagon acquisition community notes that risk to the cost, schedule and performance of an acquisition program is increased by incorporating immature technologies that have not yet been proven.

The Defense Department has adopted a classification system that segregates technology into nine levels with increasing maturity — measured by evidence of testing or prior use — corresponding to an increase in “technology readiness levels.”

While reducing reliance on immature technologies may lower the risk of cost and schedule problems, it also ensures that nothing revolutionary, innovative or even new can make it into the system. It also ignores the many programs that do not claim to be radically innovative and which have also exceeded their budgets and slipped their schedules. The risk of premature technology obsolescence in a major system is not as easily measured as technology maturity, and merely results in a need for a system upgrade or a new acquisition program.    

In an age of ever more rapid innovation cycles, these factors make it exceedingly difficult for any leading-edge technologies to actually make it to the field.

A common theme in the voluminous case studies spanning defense and commercial innovation successes is that breakthrough capabilities often emerge not from the original vision of the technologists, nor the requirements of the end users, but through the purposeful experimentation, and just plain tinkering, that occurs when imaginative early adopters have the ability to explore novel capabilities.  

Despite episodic success stories such as the “joint capabilities technology demonstration” program and more recently, the rapid reaction technology office, the current defense acquisition system simply does not allow this experimentation to happen easily.

Research on the process of innovation increasingly highlights the need for innovating business models in order to adapt to change. Many commercial case studies highlight the value of business model innovation, as a key to creating real competitive advantage.  

A survey conducted by The Economist several years ago reported that more than 50 percent of executives believe business model innovation will be even more important for success than product or service innovation.

It is clear that in order to fully unleash innovation in the era of declining budgets, changes to the defense innovation and technology transition business model are needed.   

First, the Defense Department should create a new office at DARPA with a budget and a charter to experiment with new techniques for rapid innovation and transition focused on current acquisition programs and already fielded systems.

This new office could be started by reallocating just a small percentage of DARPA’s total funding. In return, DARPA program managers would be relieved from primary responsibility for developing technology transition opportunities.  

This will allow program managers to focus on long-term research, invention and technology innovation, which are, presumably, their primary reasons they selected to come to DARPA. Funding under the new DARPA technology transition office would be open to competitive bidding from Defense Department programs and their contractors.  

The new DARPA office would be loosely modeled on the highly successful technology licensing office (TLO) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has been the catalyst for hundreds of new ventures and innovative products. The MIT TLO operates as a broker between MIT inventors and entrepreneurs who seek cutting edge technology.  

Each year, the TLO acts as a partner in dozens of new commercial business ventures, and returns almost $100 million to the MIT coffers by licensing MIT developed technology.

Like the TLO, the new DARPA office would manage the DARPA intellectual property portfolio, but unlike the TLO, it would focus on operational military systems and acquisition programs instead of the commercial marketplace.   

Second, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics needs to reinforce the stated objective of rapid innovation by being willing to offer waivers and incentives for key acquisition programs to create innovation cells within Defense Department programs.  

These cells would be allowed to deviate from the rigid strictures on technology maturity and strict adherence to requirements in order to facilitate experimentation with new technologies and novel approaches. This is especially easy to do with information and software intensive systems, since improvements that have demonstrated utility through experimentation and testing can be readily proliferated as an upgrade to the system.   

DARPA can be rightly proud of its rich legacy of innovation. With some bureaucratic tinkering, inspiration and experimentation, it can be even more effective in the future.
Reader Comments

Re: At the Age of 50, it’s Time for DARPA to Rethink its Future

The rapid adoption and fielding of advanced technologies is an ongoing goal of the department, to which DARPA has often contributed. The article however espouses a recurring misconception about the acquisition system. Formal programs of record (acquisition programs post Milestone B) that require mature technologies are in the “Engineering and Manufacturing Development” phase. Rapid progress through that phase depends upon the use of mature technologies to avoid the turbulence and disruption that occurs when planned technologies turn out not to deliver as anticipated. Discovery and maturation of the “revolutionary, innovative or …new” is the province of the S&T program, not the acquisition program.

There is increasing recognition of and attention to the need for maturation activities before Milestone B. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the requirement for competitive prototyping, which should take the innovative ideas from the lab to a state that they can be readily incorporated in an acquisition. Requiring maturity in acquisition programs is part of good systems engineering and does nothing to impede innovation in the S&T program.

Further, when multiple new technologies are planned for incorporation in an acquisition system, fielding of the new capabilities generated from mature technologies is delayed by the turbulence associated with the immature technologies. The immature technologies usually aren’t fielded any sooner anyway, since they still need to be matured before they can be used.

Dave Sparrow on 09/01/2009 at 08:41

Re: At the Age of 50, it’s Time for DARPA to Rethink its Future

DARPA needs to rely more heavily on well established and proven track record defense contractors who have the technology or the ability to develop it. While a few universities are in the R&D domain and have leading edge technology, it is the private sector in industry that is on the cutting edge of innovation to turn worthwhile projects into viable systems. The Gov't usually gets in the way and clouds much innovation with unneccessary burdening beaurcracy and self serving consultants who don't always live up to expectations. Still DARPA is viable; they just need a better model. And that model is not to use consultants, but to explicitly direct industry with the seasoned domain knowledge and technical expertise to rise to the occassion. Many contractors would love for the Gov't to administer the contract by the use of great DARPA PMs, but then get out of the way when it comes to technical innovation as the Gov't oversight adds to rising costs and is not the answer in the value stream. Bottom line: Tell the contractors what you want in the form of solid requirements, but not how to do it.

Barry on 09/01/2009 at 08:31

Re: At the Age of 50, it’s Time for DARPA to Rethink its Future

DARPA Program Managers come to DARPA because they have an idea that believe will make a difference if it can be done and DARPA provides the opportunity to get it done.

DARPA PM’s don’t do the work themselves but fund industry and universities to develop the technology.

DARPA PM’s want to be responsible for transitioning their technology. In fact, they are the best agent for finding customers since they are the ones who exude the excitement of the technology and can explain it better than anyone else.

Having DARPA PM’s responsible for not only developing the technology but also be responsible (with great help from the Office and DARPA Director) has been its hallmark way of doing business for 50 years.

Changing this tenet of DARPA’s success is dangerous.

Taking that responsibility away from them will remove a major reason why they come.

This will result in the great ones not coming to DARPA and it will atrophy into just another S&T organization.

But in DARPA’s case, it will be an organization without a direct Service sponsor which could lead to their demise in tough budget times.

TT on 08/14/2009 at 20:57

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