A basic challenge for any military research and development organization is to match military problems with technological opportunities, including finding new operational concepts. The challenge is a very difficult one because military problems may not have a clear, easy technological solution. Also, the military implications of many emergent technological capabilities are unclear. DARPA focuses its investment, therefore, in an area referred to as “DARPA Hard,” a set of challenges that, if solved—even with a solution that initially poses a high risk of technical failure—will be of enormous benefit to U.S. military capabilities and to national security. DARPA’s investments focus on research that the individual services are unlikely to support because it is too risky, because it doesn't fit specific roles and missions, or because the potential product might challenge existing systems or operational concepts. DARPA focuses on capabilities military commanders might want or need in the future, not on what they want or need today. Management at DARPA insists that all programs start with good ideas and good people to pursue them. Without that combination of good ideas and good people, a program will not be launched.
Welby mentioned three key organizing principles that allowed DARPA to maintain a cutting-edge position in the defense research establishment. The first is that DARPA should remain a relatively small, flexible, and flat organization relying on a technically astute staff of program managers borrowed for 3 to 5 years from industry, universities, government laboratories, and federally funded research and development centers. The fiscal year 2004 budget was just shy of $3 billion. The programs covered by that budget were executed with approximately 150 technical program managers and a senior management staff of approximately 20. DARPA also has an experimental hiring authority under 5 USC 3104,1 which allows it to quickly hire expert program managers from industry at competitive salaries. This flexibility helps bring in the best and brightest. The thinking is that the best place to get new ideas is from new people—new program managers are often willing to redirect the work of their predecessors.
DARPA’s program managers operate with substantial autonomy and minimum bureaucratic impediment. Upper management is focused on good stewardship of taxpayer funds but otherwise imposes relatively few formal rules. The responsibility of a senior-level manager within the agency is to empower individual technical program managers to get their job done.
The second organizing principle is that the agency should be largely project-based. A program at DARPA lasts typically 3 to 5 years and has a strong focus on a clearly defined set of goals. Important technology challenges, such as advanced focal plane development or the improvement of vehicle autonomy, may be addressed by a series of independently executed programs that occur over a longer period of time. When a program reaches its planned end, it generally stops. Other programs may be started in the same technical area, perhaps even with the same program manager. From the outside, this may appear to be an extension of previous work, but within DARPA each program really represents a fresh decision to pursue a technical opportunity. Prior investment does not influence a decision on whether to begin a new effort.
The third organizing principle is that DARPA maintains very little permanent infrastructure. The agency has no labs, no test facilities, and no production lines. To
Information on and the text of the U.S. Code can be found at <http://uscode.house.gov/search/criteria.php>. Accessed September 24, 2004.