Generally when PopSci writes about DARPA we do so with enthusiasm, as the Pentagon’s far-out research arm tends to prod at the edges of what seems possible, even when it fails spectacularly. But when it fails institutionally, we have to acknowledge that even the storied Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is at a fundamental level a bureaucracy prone to the same problems and inefficiencies as any other bureaucracy. With that, point you toward a piece by the crew over at Danger Room, who today tell the tale of a seemingly huge DARPA fail.
Part of this story is straight political drama, involving a conflict of interest between outgoing DARPA director Regina Dugan’s roles as chief of the agency and shareholder in a defense tech firm that was granted loads of DARPA cash (her family runs the company, called RedX Defense). We’ve heard rumblings about this contractual conflict before, and indeed the Pentagon’s inspector general has launched an investigation into the matter to see if RedX was treated preferentially during Dugan’s tenure.
But more importantly, the story reveals that DARPA pursued–and that program heads were pressured to pursue–a bomb-detecting technology that allegedly failed time and time again. According to the Danger Room story, agency bosses were told repeatedly that the technology wasn’t panning out, but it kept receiving DoD funds anyhow. A conflict of interest is one thing, but wasting resources and time chasing failed bomb detector tech while American soldiers are daily being threatened by improvised explosive devices lies somewhere between unconscionable and criminal, if indeed the allegations are true.
We don’t really know all the details at this point, but the DoD’s inspector general is digging. In the meantime, click through to Danger Room for the rest of the story.