The Cold War inspired the creation of several key publicly funded organizations, many of them military, that have reconfigured the nation’s economy, and the world’s, through a series of transformative technology booms. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which was founded by President Eisenhower in 1958 as a response to Sputnik, has been credited with laying the groundwork for the internet, Wi-Fi, supercomputing, desktop computing, GPS, robotics, artificial intelligence, drones, and voice recognition. Through the ’50s and ’60s, the Department of Defense learned how to best use its position as a primary customer to spur industries to create better and more innovative technologies—a process that has brought to market three of the most important energy technologies of the past century: nuclear power, sophisticated and efficient turbines, and solar photovoltaic tech. (The depth of the military’s influence on the US economy is so profound that, to understand its role, I found myself reading an economics book titled Is War Necessary for Economic Growth? The answer was, with some qualifications, yes.)
As Arati Prabhakar, who led Darpa from 2012 to 2017, explained to me, “We are very good at innovating in this country for the things that we set out to innovate for in 1945: national security, which led to changes in information technology, and health, which became biomedicine. And I don’t think it’s an accident that that’s what we’re good at now—because those were precisely the things that we focused on.”
The military has been successful at creating tech for a few reasons: As Prabhakar suggested, it sets priorities for problems it wishes to solve and then pursues multiple technological pathways. What’s more, it perseveres without caring excessively about costs.
Take Darpa itself. According to MIT’s Bill Bonvillian, who has studied the agency’s role in innovation for more than two decades, Darpa’s greatest advantage is its uniquely nimble, collaborative, mission-driven culture, where managers move back and forth between research and application, creating communities among researchers and industry. “In most R&D agencies, the critical decision is awarding the grant,” he says. “In Darpa, the managers award the grants and then move into the researcher’s home.”
In addition to providing what economists call the “technology push” by funding foundational science through Darpa, the military also excels at creating a “demand pull” by partnering with industry to develop the products, mounting large-scale demonstration projects, and being an early-adopting customer with deep pockets. Many of these innovations have made their way into civilian life.
Every time you board a 737, for example, you are experiencing the result of the Army’s demand pull in the world economy. In the early ’60s, Army and NASA engineers set out on a program of basic and applied research to radically change the way they understood jet engines, in a bid to make them much more energy-efficient. As researcher John Alic has documented, they went deep into the physics of the machines, studying the way air flowed over the blades and how metals behave at high temperatures. They funded basic research on rare earth magnets at university labs and developed ceramic coatings that are now standard for high-temperature uses. With the Army spending billions of dollars on research and then purchasing expensive products that spun out of it—like Apache helicopter blades—not only did jet engines become more efficient and reliable, the private sector adopted and built off of the new technologies to create civilian products—like that passenger aircraft, the turbines in gas-fired power plants, and even the magnets that run the electric windows in your car.
The US has wallowed in the politics of climate despair since the late 1990s, so it may be hard to accept what I’m going to say next: We could fairly quickly adapt our existing federal technology innovation system to work on the tech we need to decarbonize energy at a scale that would have real impact. (What’s more, by shifting innovation from military applications to civilian ones, we’d be building a country where war is no longer necessary for economic growth. But that’s a different conversation.)