The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is launching a $300 million collection of research efforts that could change the way the military models, designs, and ultimately manufactures its next generation of vehicles and weaponry. The program aims to develop a new amphibious tank in a collaborative process that allows designers to predict how all its components will interact before it is ever built.
Very few countries are able to manufacture military jets and warships that marry electronics, novel materials, and cutting-edge propulsion systems. Trouble often starts when a big project is divided into subsystems and farmed out. One team may design the engine, another the structure, and a third the electronics. Problems such as stress cracks may arise from the way those systems interact, but in many cases those problems don’t become apparent until a full prototype is actually built, triggering costly do-overs.
Consider the Pentagon’s effort to build the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane meant to be used by all branches of the military. The program has seen huge delays because of unexpected defects, like overheating caused by the hundreds of computer processors that run the jet’s avionics, communications, and weapons. The F-35 is now expected to cost $135 million per plane and $1.5 trillion over the life of the program, making it the most expensive weapons system in military history.