As more than a decade of war begins to draw to a close, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is reassessing how to keep doing what it’s known for: developing disruptive technologies before anyone else does.
The agency is also banking on the fact that it’s going to be dealing with a more complex threat environment, and with less money to accomplish its mission, its director says.
With only about 200 full-time employees, DARPA is a fairly tiny agency by federal standards. Still, it’s proud of the innovations it’s come up with over the years. ARPANet, the forerunner to the Internet comes up often. But the agency is also humble, in a way, about its role in the much broader federal research enterprise. It gets only about 1 percent of the federal government’s R&D funding, and even within DoD, its share is only 4 percent.
Arati Prabhakar, DARPA’s director, said one challenge her agency will have over at least the next several years is to make those research dollars go further.
“We believe we may be at the beginning of a fundamental shift in how our society allocates resources to the business of national security. And I’m not talking today about the immediate issues around sequestration,” she told reporters at the Pentagon last week. “What I’m really talking about here are the fiscal pressures that could shape a different future over the coming years and decades. And if it turns out to be the case that we don’t allocate this continuing level of support for national security as a society it actually won’t change the fact that our job will still be to keep the country as safe and secure as is humanely possible, despite that.”
Those anticipated funding constraints are one of three factors DARPA considered as it laid out a new framework for the agency’s future last Wednesday.
Wide-range of threats
Prabhakar said DARPA has also focused on the fact that it needs to develop technologies that are not just cutting-edge, but also versatile enough to be relevant in a world where national threats aren’t coming from just one country or on one type of environment. “We believe we’re going to be in an extended period during which our national security will face a wide range of different types of threats from a wide range of different actors,” she said. “Nation-states are in the mix, but so too are terrorist organizations and criminal organizations and even individuals. And all of these different kinds of actors have the conventional means of waging war or inflicting damage, but now they also have some new tools. Cyber is a very obvious example. Many of these actors also have increasing access to weapons of mass destruction, or weapons of mass terror. So the number one major factor that we really pay attention to is this complex, fluid, shifting national security environment that we think we will be facing for an extended period of time.”
Thirdly, Prabhakar said DARPA’s research efforts going forward have to acknowledge the fact that many of the key technologies that kept the U.S. at the top of the heap for decades are now globalized, commercialized and open to everyone.
“The world has changed in some important ways, and already today our military systems are critically reliant on technologies that in some cases are available to everybody around the world, and in some cases are actually not even made anymore in the United States,” she said. “That’s a trend that we expect will continue and in particular we think that other nations will continue to grow their capabilities in terms of technology and new research and development. I think that’s going to be a fact of life in the world that we’re living in.”
In its new framework, DARPA accepts as a given that technology and the technology supply chain now operate in a world that’s relatively free from borders. So the agency wants to focus its attention on layering those technologies in ways that no one’s thought of before and on building innovative systems architectures that potential adversaries can’t match.
She offered cyber weapons as an example. She said DARPA wants to move the cyber threat to U.S, military capabilities and critical infrastructure from something that everyone believes is a serious threat, to just another national security risk that’s seen as manageable.
“But beyond that, it’s a tool that can be part of our military suite of capabilities,” she said. “And that portion of our work on cyber offense, Plan X, is a program that is specifically working toward building really the technology infrastructure that would allow cyber offense to move from the world we’re in today, where it’s a fine, handcrafted capability that requires exquisite authorities to do anything with it, that when you launch it into the world, you hope that it’s going to do what you think it’s gonna do, but you don’t really know. We need to move from there to a future where cyber is a capability like other weapons capabilities, meaning that a military operator can design and deploy a cyber effect, know what it’s going to accomplish, do battle damage assessment and measure what it has accomplished, and, with that, build in the graduated authorities that allow an appropriate individual to take an appropriate level of action. That’s the vision.”
Next-generation GPS needed
Among other things DARPA has got up its sleeve is a replacement for Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology. The agency led the way in miniaturizing GPS receivers. Thirty years ago, they almost were too bulky for one person to carry. Now they’re built into in every smartphone on the planet and into many military systems. But each of those receivers relies on a constellation of satellites orbiting the earth, making GPS subject to radio jamming, or to complete irrelevance if the satellites are damaged or destroyed.
“Sometimes we create a capability that is so powerful that our reliance on it in itself becomes a vulnerability. And I think that is where we are today with GPS,” she said. “The work that we’ve been doing over the last few years at DARPA is to create a next generation of position navigation and timing. It will not be a monolithic new solution. It will be a series of technologies to track time and position and to fix time and position from external sources, which, again, layered together, will provide for platforms and I think eventually for individuals a kind of capability that allows us to no longer rely on GPS. But then, even more interesting, actually enables a new generation of capabilities when we’re able to synchronize electronically at that kind of timescale.”
Prabhakar said one of DARPA’s most important missions will be to find ways to make U.S. weapons systems inherently cost-effective in a continuously changing threat environment. That means not just trimming down requirements to make systems cheaper, but designing technologies so that they’re inherently adaptable to changing times without starting from scratch.
“Thinking about the complexity of the environment that we’re going to face, we’re thinking about how we can make the systems of the future more readily adaptable so that they can be configured for whatever actual threat emerges in time, or can be reconfigured in real time in an engagement so that we can adapt more quickly than adversaries might in a battle environment,” she said. “We’re seeking, as well, ideas that can invert the cost equation, ways to use innovation not just to nibble at the cost of systems, but really to fundamentally change the cost equation and to inflict much more costs on our adversaries to respond to the solutions that we come up with.”