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The Importance of DARPA in Modern American History

By on May 14, 2014

In order to understand the importance of DARPA in Modern American history, we need to understand what DARPA is. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is an independent agency of the United States Department of Defense that focuses on developing innovative technology to guarantee that the United States remains ahead of its potential threats.

How DARPA Played an Important Role in Modern American History

President Dwight D. Eisenhower created DARPA in 1958 for forming executive research and developmental projects to expand the boundaries of technology and science far beyond any other nation. The Eisenhower administration was responding to the Soviet launching of Sputnik 1 in 1957, and ARPA’s (later changed to DARPA – D for defense) mission was to ensure U.S. military technology would be more sophisticated than that of the nation’s potential enemies, such as the USSR. The creation of DARPA has a strong link to the Cold War that was occurring during this time between the Soviet Union and the United States; it further demonstrates the competition between the two elite super powers. DARPA is extremely significant to our American history since it demonstrates the amount of determination put into a rivalry with another superpower and our struggle to maintain our status as a dominant democratic nation, ensuring national security, and it has created astonishing technology that is still in use today.

During the Cold War, nothing was certain. People lived their lives in fear that any day World War III would start, and it would involve nuclear weapons that were developed in countries other than the United States. An arms race was intensifying because technology was changing the type of warfare. The Soviet Union was improving their anti-aircraft and missile technology, along with increasing their number of military bases and troops. According to the Director of DARPA (1975-1977), Dr. George H. Heilmeier, “During the Cold War, people were concerned about air warfare, particularity the surface to air missile threat. And, at that time the Soviet Union had a very large submarine force. So, any submarine warfare was another critical need panic at the time.” However, DARPA was able to alleviate all of those worries from the American population by creating new warfare inventions that have never been seen before. Responding to those threats, Dr. Heilmeier took DARPA in a new direction by building experimental prototypes to test and prove the success of new technologies.

In 1975, Dr. Heilmeier presented six major prototype concepts to the Defense Secretary – one stood out, the “invisible airplane”. It was a radical idea – an experiment with aircraft performance for a very low radar profile. In just two years, DARPA had produced an entire new airplane invisible to radars. This had major impacts for the United States against the Soviet Union. Moreover, this caused the Soviet Union to spend their resources and time in advancing their warfare technology as well, causing their national debt to increase. As years passed, a change in administration occurred; Ronald Regan was elected President. It also brought changes in defense policy and changes to DARPA. One of Ronald Reagan’s major initiatives was to manage and to eliminate the Soviet threat as well as change governmental spending and focus more on defense. Reagan is known for his Reaganomics, in which he aimed to reduce government spending, reduce income taxes, and reduce government regulation. While taxes to the citizens of the US decreased and government spending increased, the national debt rose because Reagan spent a lot on defense. Dr. Robert Cooper, new director of DARPA (1981 – 9185), said, “There was intention from the beginning to spend enough on building the equipment that our forces had that it would require the Soviet Union to spend with us if they wanted to stay with us equally. And, it was the intention from the beginning to bankrupt the Soviet Union.” The United States’ central instrument for putting pressure on the Soviet Union was Reagan’s massive defense build-up, which raised defense spending from $134 billion in 1980 to $253 billion in 1989. This raised American defense spending to 7 percent of GDP, dramatically increasing the federal deficit. Yet, in its efforts to keep up with the American defense build-up, the Soviet Union was compelled in the first half of the 1980s to raise the share of its defense spending from 22 percent to 27 percent of GDP, while it froze the production of civilian goods at 1980 levels. Consequently, this strategic spending by the United States in building up their defense caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. The strategy implemented by President Ronald Regan clearly shows the importance of DARPA and its advancements during the Cold War. Without DARPA, the innovative technology used to scare the Soviets would not exist, and the Soviets may have been able to focus their spending on advancing their technology as well, instead of allocating it to defensive spending.

Not only did DARPA play an important role during the Cold war, it also plays a major role in today’s society. One of the DARPA’s missions since the beginning was to ensure national security and that is exactly what is still doing today by continuing the technological superiority of the United States military. Today, nations are looking towards a different type of warfare that has never been seen before, biological weapons. Biological weapons deal with the use of toxins or other infectious agents that will kill or incapacitate a society. An example of a biological weapon would be small pox or the use of anthrax. The United States had its own agency dedicated to the production of these weapons, but was cancelled in 1956. While the US hindered the production of these weapons, the Soviet Union continued research and development of biological weapons, in what they called Biopreparat. Since biological weapons are still at bay, one of DARPA’s focuses is defending the nation against a possible attack with biological weapons. In 2000, DARPA began research into creating a potential gaseous decontamination technology such as chlorine dioxide to combat the spread of anthrax. Under specific conditions, it was found that the use of chlorine dioxide does in fact decontaminate the environment and sterilize the bacteria. Another amazing technique that the department of DARPA uses is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR is a biological technique used to amplify DNA from a few copies to millions of the same DNA sequence. Before DARPA introduced this technique to its military sergeants, highly trained biologists only used it. With DARPA’s training, the PCR can be performed quickly and efficiently outside of a laboratory. PCR can be used to screen mail that has been possibly contaminated by a terrorist against the US government. Millions of tests are being ran every year with the help of DARPA.

DARPA also has projects in other areas of defense, such as combat. One project that has been long in the works is The Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin, or PETMAN. This is a robot that can be used in combat. PETMAN is a bipedal robot that has the ability to climb and do push ups. PETMAN also contains sensors embedded in its skin that can detect chemicals leaking through its suit, along with being able to maintain an optimal temperature. With such advancements like this, combat can be safer for soldiers, and the front lines can consist of these robots instead of humans. A major goal for any nation would be lowering the risk of lives for their citizens, and with a project like this, millions of lives could be saved.

While the focus of DARPA is to ensure national security, it has also made a major impact on medical and technological advances in the United States. This governmental agency has many projects it is working on to help advance technology and medicine for soldiers on and off the battlefield. One amazing project that DARPA is working on is nerve interfaces for amputees. DARPA is researching how to develop reliable peripheral interfaces that use signals from nerves or muscles to control prosthetics and provide sensory feedback. DARPA’s breakthrough with this research allows for advanced prosthetic limbs to be controlled by the brain. With this research, Phantom Limb Syndrome and other psychological occurrences such as PTSD can be cured or at least improved. Research is still being conducted for more long-term solutions, and a higher viability of these prosthetic limbs. Research is also being done on a less invasive way of implanting these devices. Advancements such as these help our wounded veterans live a more normal life after their service. DARPA’s research demonstrates our immense gratitude for the service that our citizens have provided for this country, which is why this agency is an extremely important asset for our country.

While medical advancements are extremely important for those coming home from a tour of duty, or for wounded soldiers, technology on the battlefield is just as important. With improvement in technology, we can reduce the casualties in war. An example of great advancement in technology on the battlefield would be the development of a private cloud at a tactical level. This is a type of software used on android phones that allows crucial information, such as maps, to be passed along on the front lines. Technology like this is very important when relaying messages in different countries during times of war. It is able to keep the strategy in place and to notify soldiers of immediate changes. Tactics like this it what helps a country come out victorious in war, and it is also what puts us ahead of the game against other superpowers.

Another technological field that DARPA is known for is the Internet. Although there are many individuals to whom the development of the net can be attributed, without DARPA it simply would not exist. In August 1962, JCR Licklider’s paper entitled “On-Line Man Computer Communication” described a connected global network by computers. In October 1962, he had been appointed director of the new Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at ARPA, as it was called back then. JCR Licklider’s brief was to create a network to connect Department of Defense computers at three disparate locations. It was not until another internet pioneer, Robert Taylor, who took over as the head of IPTO and brought in Larry Roberts from MIT that work on building the network began. The first host-to-host connection between PCs on the new Arpanet was established at 10.30 pm on 29 October 1969, creating the world’s first operational packet-switching network. By December 1969, a four-node network was up and running, the first email was sent across it in 1972, and people started referring to it as the internet in 1973. Consequently, people all around the world enjoys the amazing technology of the internet and the graeat capabilities it offers. DARPA has six different offices that contain its own research and projects. With such a variety, it is easy to see why DARPA is essential to the United States for its amazing medical and technological advances that everyone enjoys today.

Conclusively, as we look back into modern American history, the evidence clearly shows that DARPA has played major role on it. It evolved from the simple idea of competing against the Soviet Union’s technology to creating a great defense technological program the United States enjoys today. Since the beginning of its creation, it has affected the United States positively. Without it, we probably would not live in a dominant democratic nation, with abundant national security, and great technology that everyone enjoys today thanks to DARPA.

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