– In 1957, the entire world was surprised by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite.
In response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded the Advanced Research Projects Agency – now called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – the following year, and he directed it to prevent further technological surprises by reaching beyond the frontiers of technology and science and immediate military requirements.
In the 55 years since DARPA was founded, it has succeeded in preventing technological surprise — and has created surprise of its own, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.
“Today, if you look at how we fight, you will find in our military capabilities really critical systems and capabilities like precision guidance and navigation, like stealth technologies, like [unmanned aerial vehicles], communications and networking, night-vision systems,” she said, all developed, in part, due to pivotal early investments by DARPA.
“And our warfighters have taken this suite of capabilities and turned it into a way to change the face of war,” Prabhakar said.
In making those investments, DARPA paved the way for leaps forward in capability, she said. “That’s really our role,” she added. “That’s what our function is. That’s what we’ve done for many generations and that’s what we’re going to be doing again for the next generation.”
DARPA is a small agency, Prabhakar said. About half of its roughly 200 employees are experts from throughout the technical and military communities who serve as program managers for short terms of about three to five years. The rotational nature of the program manager positions allows the agency to tap into a broad technical community, she said, a tactic that gives DARPA influence that far outweighs its size.
“The job for the rest of us [at DARPA] is to recruit these stellar individuals, to construct a balanced portfolio of programs from the ideas that they generate, and ultimately … enable these program managers to take the kind of risk that is inherent in reaching for high payoff,” she said. “And all of that is really what keeps the DARPA engine humming,” Prabhakar added.
Incoming program managers listen to what is happening in the technical community to learn where the breakthrough opportunities are, Prabhakar said, and learn from the military community what they see as their future needs.
“From all of those inputs, our program managers create DARPA programs that they think really have the potential to change the world,” she said. “When they start building these programs, of course, they build these new technology capabilities [and] … technical communities that really can move our abilities forward in a really powerful way.”
While DARPA’s mission hasn’t changed in 55 years, the same can’t be said of the world in which it operates, Prabhakar said. Now is a good time for DARPA to step back and assess its view of future missions, she added, particularly in the context of today’s realities.
The agency identified three major trends that it views as critical in shaping DARPA’s effort to build “radical new solutions,” Prabhakar said.
“The first major factor that we see is 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 told reporters. Not just nation-states, but also terrorist and criminal organizations and even individuals, she said.
These actors now have access to a wide range of tools that can create effects once limited only to nations, she said — weapons of mass destruction or mass terror and cyberattacks, for example. “So the No. 1 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.”
The second factor, she said, is the rapid advances in military technology made by other nations. This, combined with other factors, has led to a prevalence of obsolete and publicly available technology in U.S. military systems. “That’s a trend that we expect will continue,” Prabhakar said. “I think that’s going to be a fact of life in the world that we’re living in.”
Fiscal constraints are the third trend shaping DARPA’s future, she said. “We believe we may be at the beginning of a fundamental shift in how our society allocates resources to the business of national security,” she added.
Prabhakar said she’s not referring only to the immediate issues around sequestration spending cuts. “What I’m really talking about here are the fiscal pressures that could shape a different future over the coming years and decades,” she explained, “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 humanly possible.
“So these three factors create a very challenging environment that we’re going to be facing for an extended period of time,” she continued. “I think these are factors that create an environment that calls for a DARPA and for the DARPA approaches to thinking outside the box more than ever before.”
DARPA will continue to invest in “game-changers,” Prabhakar said. “[Investing] in radical new systems concepts, in radical new technologies that can enable new capabilities, that’s something that DARPA has done for 55 years, and we’re going to do it today, and we’ll hope we’ll do it for the next 55 years at least.”
The agency is also taking new approaches, she said. “We’re thinking about how we can make the systems of the future more readily adaptable,” she added, “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.”
The organization also seeks ideas that can “invert the cost equation,” Prabhakar said. These types of approaches not only would reduce program costs, but also would force adversaries to spend more money to counter the technology than the technology cost to develop and implement, she explained.
“And then, finally, we’re also thinking about the fact that DARPA’s in the ‘silver bullet’ business, but in fact, even our most powerful capability will not single-handedly change the face of war for the next generation,” she said.
One way to realize such a far-reaching change is by combining technologies, she said. “That’s how I think we’ve created the last big shift in military capability,” she added, “and we see how that could be possible looking forward.”
DARPA’s objective is a new generation of technology for national security, Prabhakar said.
“If we’re successful, as I think we really must be in this DARPA endeavor, what that will mean for the future is that our future leaders and commanders will have real options, powerful options for all the range of threats that we face in the years and decades ahead,” she said. “That’s really how we will enable our nation to achieve its strategic objectives in a decisive fashion.”