Most of this money goes towards small ‘seedling programs.’ DARPA PMs use seedling programs to ‘acid test’ the riskiest pieces of a program idea . These seedling programs are small grants or contracts designed help solidify that an idea is not impossible and that it is possible. The DARPA execution framework boils down to showing that thing is not impossible, showing that thing is possible, and then making that thing possible.
There is very little oversight on the money spent on seedling programs as long as the budget is less than ~$500k and DARPA PMs don’t have to use open solicitations. In essence the PM can go to whoever they want and say “I need this done.” Zero oversight enables them to move extremely fast. Restrictions on spending money happen when you reach trust limits, so this low-oversight spending is another reason why The dependence of DARPA on high quality program managers mirrors the obsession with “talent” in other disciplines.
Weirdly, this is in the same ballpark as a large seed round for a startup or the amount of money you need to set up a lab, which suggests that there may be a Trust-building timescale and budgets tend to be similar in different domains.