Thinking Tech

Russia plans a DARPA of its own

Posting in Government

President Medvedev has agency envy.

Much of Russia's current military technology bears indelible signs of its Soviet roots, and by extension, decrepitude. President Dmitry Medvedev hopes to change this, and he's going to start by emulating DARPA, the American Department of Defense's legendary tech incubator.

Anyone who knows the origin story of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will rightly note some irony here. Originally conceived in 1958 under the name ARPA, this mission-agnostic, unified military research agency was formed in direct response to recent technological successes by the Soviet Union, particularly the launch of the Sputnik satellite. In fact, it was in direct response to that launch that President Eisenhower said these words, referring to the creation of ARPA, in his 1958 State of the Union address:

The Defense establishment must plan for a better integration of its defense resources, particularly with respect to the newer weapons now building and under development...In recognition of the need for single control in some of out more advanced development projects, the Secretary of Defense has already decided to concentrate into one organization all the anti-missile and satellite technology undertaken within the Department of Defense.

Much of DARPA's history continues to tell this story the tech, space and arms races that defined the Cold War, though its projects, such as ARPANET--the direct predecessor to the Internet--have occasionally bled into the civilian world.

Medvedev's plan for a DARPA-like agency, reported by Russian business paper Vedemosti (via state media) is both a bid for better military technology and a move toward a more modern vision for R&D. (An integral part of the DARPA model is the use of private and academic researchers, conscripted to help the agency's relatively small staff.)

Much of DARPA's success, however, can be attributed to a slow and steady refinement of both practice and focus. Its yearly operating budget is modest, at around $3bn--less than a fifth of NASA's--but its projects, though occasionally a bit esoteric, are usually well-selected.

It's unclear what kind of budget Russia's DARPA will have, how closely it will mimic the goals of its American counterpart, what kind of projects to expect from it, or even when it will launch (though Medvedev seems keen), so it's hard to gauge its chances at making a serious impact. To be sure, building on DARPA model will provide a good start, but it's far from a guarantee of success.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure