DARPA last week released Breakthrough Technologies for National Security, a biennial report summarizing the Agency’s historical mission, current and evolving focus areas and recent transitions of DARPA-developed technologies to the military Services and other sectors.
The report’s release coincided with testimony by DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar before the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, at a hearing entitled “Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2016 Science and Technology Programs: Laying the Groundwork to Maintain Technological Superiority.” The full report is available at https://go.usa.gov/3rut4.
Breakthrough Technologies for National Security affirms that America is in a strong strategic position today, in large part because of its longstanding technological dominance. But it also notes that a number of challenges threaten that status, including the global spread of ever more powerful and less expensive technologies and the emergence of disruptive non-nation-state actors in addition to ongoing threats from peer adversaries.
“DARPA’s mission and philosophy have held steady for decades, but the world around DARPA has changed dramatically,” the report says. “Those changes include some remarkable and even astonishing scientific and technological advances that, if wisely and purposefully harnessed, have the potential not only to ensure ongoing U.S. military superiority and security but also to catalyze societal and economic advances. At the same time, the world is experiencing some deeply disturbing technical, economic and geopolitical shifts that pose potential threats to U.S. preeminence and stability.”
Those dueling trends of simmering menace and unprecedented opportunity deeply inform DARPA’s most recent determination of its strategic priorities for the next several years, the report says.
The report identifies the phenomenon of increasing pace as a central challenge and opportunity—from the need for ever-faster radio-frequency and information-processing systems that work on the scale of nanoseconds, to the need to speed up the development time of major military systems, whose timescales today extend to decades.
“In these areas and others,” the report says, “DARPA will pursue the strategic imperative of pace in part by continuing to be a bold, risk-tolerant investor in high-impact technologies, so the Nation can be the first to develop and adopt the novel capabilities made possible by such work.”
DARPA is focusing its strategic investments in four main areas:
- Rethink Complex Military Systems: To help enable faster development and integration of breakthrough military capabilities in today’s rapidly shifting landscape, DARPA is working to make weapons systems more modular and easily upgraded and improved; assure superiority in the air, maritime, ground, space and cyber domains; improve position, navigation and timing (PNT) without depending on the satellite-based Global Positioning System; and augment defenses against terrorism.
- Master the Information Explosion: DARPA is developing novel approaches to deriving insights from massive datasets, with powerful big-data tools. The Agency is also developing technologies to ensure that the data and systems with which critical decisions are made are trustworthy, such as automated cyber defense capabilities and methods to create fundamentally more secure systems. And DARPA is addressing the growing need to ensure privacy at various levels of need without losing the national security value that comes from appropriate access to networked data.
- Harness Biology as Technology: To leverage recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, immunology, genetics and related fields, DARPA in 2014 created its Biological Technologies Office, which has enabled a new level of momentum for the Agency’s portfolio of innovative, bio-based programs. DARPA’s work in this area includes programs to accelerate progress in synthetic biology, outpace the spread of infectious diseases and master new neurotechnologies.
- Expand the Technological Frontier: DARPA’s core work has always involved overcoming seemingly insurmountable physics and engineering barriers and, once showing those daunting problems to be tractable after all, applying new capabilities made possible by these breakthroughs directly to national security needs. Maintaining momentum in this essential specialty, DARPA is working to achieve new capabilities by applying deep mathematics; inventing new chemistries, processes and materials; and harnessing quantum physics.
Breakthrough Technologies for National Security includes two sections highlighting examples of DARPA technologies that have transitioned to the military or other organizations in support of national interests. One section focuses on technology transitions from recent programs to the Services. A second section, entitled “Success Stories,” looks at the long-term impacts of certain DARPA programs over a period of decades—a reminder that the benefits of DARPA research often extend for many years after initial applications get operationalized, sometimes in unexpected ways.
A theme common to all these examples is that many individuals and organizations—public and private—have been involved in each success. That reflects the importance not only of DARPA’s seminal investments but also of the Nation’s vibrant technology ecosystem, which builds on the Agency’s work and applies DARPA’s advances to the task of ensuring national security.
“DARPA focuses heavily on building collaborative communities of expertise in institutions across the country,” the report notes. “This approach helps the Nation by encouraging work at the boundaries and intersections of disciplines, while making the Agency itself an enormously supportive, interactive and satisfying place to work.”
Indeed, Dr. Prabhakar concluded in her written testimony before the House subcommittee, DARPA’s greatest strength is the collaborative spirit that infuses the Agency.
“I have spoken today about many challenges facing our Nation, and we in DARPA take these threats very seriously, as do all our colleagues throughout the DoD and across government,” Prabhakar said. “But one of the wonderful things about working in a place like DARPA is that our day-to-day work is always about solutions—about creative ways to neutralize risk and rise above danger. In that sense, DARPA is a very optimistic and even joyous place to work. So it is not just our responsibility but also our privilege and passion at DARPA to strive every day to cultivate and harness emerging technologies in the cause of U.S. national security.”