Globalization of Technology Threatens U.S. Dominance, DARPA Chief Warns
“Our research, innovation, and entrepreneurial capacity is the envy of the world, but others are building universities, labs, and companies with vigor and determination, and some are seeking to harm or confiscate our own capacity,” Prabhakar wrote in a new document, titled, “Driving Technological Surprise: DARPA’s Mission in a Changing World.”
During an April 24 news conference where she unveiled the report, Prabhakar made a case for the relevance of the 55-year-old agency as the U.S. military faces unknown future enemies. DARPA, she said, is not going to have the luxury of time and money to pursue its trademark silver-bullet technologies and, instead, will emphasize “layered,” “adaptable” and “multifunctional” concepts. This approach, Prabhakar stressed, is necessary to stay ahead of rapidly advancing and globalized technology.
“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] we think that other nations will continue to grow their capabilities in terms of technology.”
U.S. military engagements over the last 20 years, with a few exceptions, have been fought with systems developed largely for Cold War scenarios, the DARPA report said. “Today when we consider future engagements, we can more readily imagine a host of diverse environments and adversaries. In an uncertain world, adaptability is critical. We won’t always know exactly what we will need for tomorrow’s battle.” DARPA will focus on “systems that can be readily upgraded and can adapt in real time to changing surroundings and conditions.”
Budget cuts also have to be factored into DARPA’s future, she said. Although the agency’s budget has been relatively stable at about $3 billion a year, every Defense Department organization should prepare for the possibility of further downsizing, Prabhakar 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. And I'm not talking today about the immediate issues around sequestration,” she said. Enduring fiscal pressures, she added, “could shape a different future over the coming years and decades.”
The rising price tags of U.S. weapon systems also is a concern as enemies figure out how to counter them with low-cost technologies. DARPA wants to help “invert the cost equation,” said Prabhakar. “How can we impose more cost on our adversaries and less on ourselves, thereby increasing our deterrent? Can innovative systems architectures, autonomy, adaptability, and new processes offer new possibilities?” she asked. DARPA will be seeking “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.”
A case in point is cyber warfare, she said. “Cyber is an extraordinary example of the importance of changing the cost equation. In this new domain, threats range from self-trained individuals, who can sometimes go up against costly, sophisticated systems, to the concerted efforts of nation states,” he explained. “We can readily imagine a future in which cyber warfare is fully integrated with kinetic warfare—and there is no doubt that our potential adversaries can see this future as well.”
DARPA’s cyber-offense research program, called Plan X, is being delayed by spending cuts, Prabhakar said. The agency's budget of $2.8 billion in 2013 would drop to $2.6 billion under sequestration.
An “air dominance” study recently got under way at DARPA at the request of the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Undersecretary Frank Kendall. It will examine ways to ensure the U.S. military can maintain its technological advantage in air combat. It will cover not only aircraft but also networking and communications, control of the electromagnetic spectrum, and sensing across the electromagnetic spectrum, she said. “We're talking about how manned and unmanned systems might work together, and what role space assets play.” The study is its embryonic stages, Prabhakar said. The goal is for the study to spur "initiatives for the next budget cycle.”
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.