Can DARPA Rescue the Pentagon From Its Acquisition Doldrums?
By Sandra I. Erwin
In late 2009, we heard about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launching a new program to figure out how to build complex weapon systems five times faster than it’s done today. Now comes word that DARPA also intends to revolutionize the way the military buys communications satellites.
Could DARPA have become the Pentagon’s latest clandestine agent in search of a fix for the troubled acquisition system?
DARPA unveiled in December the appropriately named “Meta” project. The enigmatic effort -- with $60 million worth of funding -- will seek novel methods of designing weapons systems on budget and on schedule. According to a Dec. 18 solicitation, DARPA wants the private sector to contribute ideas.
That would be welcome relief for the Pentagon, which has been under fire since the Government Accountability Office revealed in 2008 that its top weapons programs were nearly $300 billion over budget.
DARPA officials said during a briefing to industry that they expect to unveil a Meta concept by 2012. Meta will seek “model-based design methods for cyberphysical systems far more complex and heterogeneous than those to which such methods are applied today,” said the solicitation.
In another move that could shake up the acquisition system, DARPA is sponsoring a project to dramatically change how satellites are acquired. It also would upset the status quo in the satellite industry.
As Austin Wright reported in National Defense Magazine this month, DARPA awarded Orbital Sciences Corp. a one-year $75 million contract to develop hardware that would allow satellites to share data while in orbit -- a de-facto outer-space version of the Internet.
A web of small, wirelessly connected satellites will carry out the same missions as current bulkier satellites. For example, one satellite in the network might collect information while another stores it.
“We’re looking at changing the paradigm of monolithic spacecraft and breaking it into multiple modules,” says Gregg Burgess, vice president for national security space systems at Orbital. The government now pays huge up-front costs to develop and launch large satellites. Under DARPA’s program, which was given the tongue-twister name Future Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft, or F6, officials could purchase these cheaper, smaller satellites one at a time and build a network over many years. The system likely would be more expensive than current satellite programs, but its costs would add up incrementally.
The company plans to build and launch three satellites by 2014.
It will be like “Wi-Fi in the sky,” said Burgess.
If these DARPA initiatives bear fruit in the coming years, who knows? Maybe DARPA will become the new darling of acquisition reformers.