For DARPA, it's all about surprises

In its effort to keep the U.S. military out front with its technology, DARPA finds itself competing with its own successes.

Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has an interesting description of DARPA’s mission: Its job is to prevent technological surprises to the U.S. military and to create surprises of its own.

In its 55-year history DARPA occasionally has surprised itself, and the agency now is working to stay ahead of its own technologies. Take the Global Positioning System for example. DOD’s weapons systems depend on GPS today, but everyone else has it as well. Over the last 30 years it has evolved from an exclusive and exotic military tool to a consumer service embedded in millions of smart phones.

“This dependency creates a critical vulnerability for many U.S. munitions systems,” DARPA says. And now the agency is searching for an alternative.

DARPA was created in 1958 in the wake of Russia’s launch of Sputnik, a surprise that the United States did not want repeated. Its job is to keep this country ahead of the game.
Coming off a decade of two concurrent wars and rapid technological advances, the agency took some time to assess its role going forward.

At a recent press briefing Prabhakar outlined three trends shaping the new environment DARPA finds itself in:

  1. The threats facing the country have shifted from a monolithic nation-state adversary to a complex of nations, terrorist and criminal organizations and individuals, all with access to advanced cyber technology.
  2. The U.S. military is critically reliant on this technology, which is being produced globally.
  3. Money for national security is likely to be tight for the foreseeable future.

“These three factors create a very challenging environment,” Prabhakar said. And this puts pressure on DARPA to keep producing asymmetric technologies — tools that have an impact far beyond the cost of development.

A case in point is a next-generation positioning system that would supplement, if not replace, GPS. The Micro-Technology for Positioning, Navigation and Timing program aims to produce self-contained chip-based systems that do not depend on GPS signals. A significant step toward this has been produced by DARPA researchers at the University of Michigan who have developed a small timing and inertial measurement unit that integrates many of the needed functions in a device smaller than a penny.

DARPA also is working to get out in front in cyberwarfare. The ominously named Plan X is an effort to move offensive cyberwar capabilities beyond the current generation of handcrafted weapons (nobody mentioned Stuxnet during the briefing) and fully integrate them into the portfolio of tactical options on the battlefield.

“I think that will be extraordinarily powerful,” Prabhakar said.

Ironically, such offensive weapons, whether launched by or against the United States, will use the Internet, another technology developed by DARPA. Once again, the agency is racing to keep ahead of itself.

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