Breakthrough national security capabilities, a differentiated U.S. technology base and a continued robust Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are elements of DARPA’s future success, Arati Prabhakar, the agency’s director, said in Washington, D.C., Oct. 22.
Prabhakar, who started July 30 as DARPA’s new director, addressed an audience of Office of Naval Research leaders and program managers and members of industry, academia and other government agencies at ONR’s Naval Science and Technology Partnership Conference.
“We are working today on projects that will make an impact in the next two years and the next four years and the next six years, but that’s just the tip of the spear,” Prabhakar said. “The true impact from the work we’re doing today is going to be felt over a period of a decade or two decades or three decades. So I like to imagine a future in 2025 or 2030, or maybe even 2035, [in which we're] able to go back and say, ‘We did the right things … and made the right investments and found the right people to work with.’”
The director, who received a doctorate in applied physics and a master of science degree in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, joined DARPA as a program manager in 1986. Over seven years, she initiated and managed programs in advanced semiconductor technology, flexible manufacturing and demonstration projects to insert new semiconductor technologies into military systems.
She also was the founding director of DARPA’s Microelectronics Technology Office, leading a team of program managers in optoelectronics, infrared imaging, nanoelectronics and other areas.
During 19 years away from DARPA, in a career spent investing in world-class engineers and scientists to create new technologies and businesses, Prabhakar said, she had a proprietary interest in the results of her early work at the agency.
“I found that the work I did and that my office had done and that my colleagues across the agency did in partnership with the services and the commercial sector led to a blossoming of capability over a couple of decades,” the director said.
“As I watched, I saw our soldiers own the battlefield because of the capabilities we had given them in sensing and communications and navigation and a host of other technologies. And in the commercial sector, I watched an explosion of capability in wireless communications and consumer electronics,” she recalled.
Looking across the U.S. technical community, she said, she saw “one person after another who had been part of the projects that we had worked on in the early days when I was at DARPA, and those individuals went on to make huge contributions to businesses, to national security and to academia.”
As she thought about returning to DARPA this summer, Prabhakar said, she considered the impact she and the agency could have on national security, the nation’s technology base and the technical community.
“There really is no better place [to be than] embedded in this particular community. … In the years that I’m with DARPA, I hope we can make the kinds of investments that have the same hugely disproportionate impact in the years to come,” she said.
DARPA was created after the Soviet Union sent Sputnik into space in 1957, Prabhakar said, creating the first artificial Earth satellite and a rude technological surprise for the United States.
“Our core mission then and now is to focus on creating [strategic] surprise and preventing that kind of surprise for our country,” the director explained, adding that breakthrough national security capabilities ultimately are about creating decisive surprise — the kind that changes outcomes.
This year is an especially interesting time to think about how to create surprise in U.S. national security, she said.
“We’re winding up over a decade of two ground wars and dealing with counterinsurgency challenges,” Prabhakar noted. “It’s an important time for us all, and DARPA in particular, to put our heads up, to look ahead, to think about what the future issues are going to be for national security and to have that influence the work we’ll be doing in this time period.”
One program in development at DARPA to deal with today’s more complex, less predictable world is a long-range anti-ship-missile called LRASM.
“It’s an approach to a new weapon system that fundamentally changes the way our sailors will engage with a very sophisticated enemy defense capability,” she said.
The missile’s own high degree of sophistication will dramatically change the range at which sailors can engage, how things go if they’re in a GPS-denied environment, and what sailors have to know about their target, the director said.
“We think this can be the next generation of advanced cruise missile,” she added. “It’s a project where we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress working with the Navy and the contractor community, and I think it … is a great example of one of many projects at DARPA that can dramatically change a specific mission or a specific scenario.”
But even LRASM is no silver bullet for the future battlefield, the director said, “so when we step back and [consider] what it would take to change the … warfighting environment in a radical and fundamental way, that’s a much tougher question.”
It will help to add to LRASM new technologies that will advance electronic warfare in dramatic ways and the ability to conduct effective cyber defense and cyber offense in a tactical environment, she said.
“We’re going to take communications technology to the next level, the next generation of [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] technology,” Prabhakar added, and broaden the position, navigation and timing technologies that will allow the services to operate without relying on GPS.
“All of those technology vectors are, in fact, advancing, and they and other technologies, as you think about a future where all of those advances have occurred, you can start to imagine radical new ways of [fighting],” the director said.
“I think it’s going to be through those efforts that we can start coming up with answers to the question, How do we create a completely new scenario, a completely new way of engagement?” she added.
A second element in DARPA’s future success is a highly differentiated technology base, the director said, because none of the new national security capabilities will happen without one.
Unlike the post-World War II era, when the United States often had the luxury of using advanced technologies invented and developed at home, she added, “that’s really not the case today for so many of the technologies upon which our national security depends.”
Virtually every aspect of information technology – from networking to communications to software systems, components and integrated circuits – along with materials and many areas of manufacturing technology, are globally available, and aren’t even available in the United States, Prabhakar said.
“Our task today is a little bit different, because in these areas we still have to create the most effective defense solutions despite the fact that we don’t get that edge that prevents our adversaries from building their own systems,” the director added.
“That means we have to be the most sophisticated and the most effective users of globally available technologies, and that’s a different kind of challenge,” she said, “but … it’s one that can be tackled by building a capability for implementing advanced systems and doing aggressive systems engineering.”
Prabhakar said she sees brewing in the scientific community a set of laboratory capabilities that could create opportunities “for some period of time – not forever, maybe for some years or even decades – [that] we can aspire to having a U.S. capability that our adversaries don’t have.”
One potential area is engineering biology, she said, a discipline from which “we’re starting to see the prospect for building engineering tools and infrastructure that would allow us to get a degree of engineering control over biology and its ability to produce, for example, new materials and new interesting components.”
The area still is very research oriented, she added, “but it’s one where we could easily imagine over a period of five or 10 years the creation of a radical infrastructure … that allows you to tackle these new technologies … and open up a wide swath of interesting applications.”
The third objective for DARPA’s success is for the agency to remain vibrant and robust, the director said.
That happens if DARPA continues to engage the broad community – companies large and small, in and out of the defense business; the services and service laboratories; and the university community – to seek technological opportunities and the new windows that are opening in the research environment, she explained.
“I think the world we’re living in today is a complex and challenging one,” Prabhakar said. “I’m pretty sure that’s going to be true in the future, and I want to make sure that we have the capability to make our contribution to the solutions that we’re going to need for those future generations.”