DARPA Seeks $2.97 Billion in FY 17 for Futuristic Defense Projects

February 10, 2016
By Sandra Jontz
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The U.S. Defense Department's fiscal 2017 budget carves out the same appropriation that it did last year for its futuristic research arm, asking Congress to again allocate $2.97 billion to pay for a range of seemingly science fiction endeavors, such as launching swarms of autonomous drones to a program to turn chemical weapons into fertilized dirt and efforts to address memory deficits caused by traumatic brain injuries.

The annual funding pays for hundreds of ongoing programs that leaders at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, have placed into three key strategic areas driving their work, said director Arati Prabhakar. The three are:

  • Rethinking complex military systems
  • Mastering the information explosion
  • Developing seeds of new technological surprise

“As we think about the spectrum of future threats, we need to consider peer-nation adversaries as well as terrorism and criminal networks and how those things work together,” said Steven Walker, the agency’s deputy director. “We can't necessarily pick the next hot spot in the world. And we can't select-focus on the fights that we think we can win."

The warfighting lead the United States had held for 15 years in enduring domains such as air, sea and space rapidly is diminishing. “Our adversaries, especially our peer adversaries, have not stood still,” Walker told journalists at an annual press preview to highlight some of the agency's key programs. “They have paid attention to what we have been doing and developed some of their own tactics and techniques to work in those domains.”

The United States will not prevail if it continues to focus on “big, monolithic, expensive platform-type systems that take a long time to develop, acquire, build and sustain,” he continued. “We won't have the number of systems that we need and we won't have them in the timely manner ... to be prepared for future fights." To counter the stalemate, DARPA is working on programs that are heterogeneous in nature, and rely on “smaller and cheaper microelectronics technologies that will enable us to have smaller and cheaper platforms,” he said.

An example includes the agency’s Experimental Spaceplane XS-1 program to fly reusable aircraft to space and back, with a crucial program aim of flying 10 times in 10 days. “Imagine the cost savings associated with being able to launch that many satellites in that short amount of time,” Walker said.

Another example in the realm of simplifying complex systems is the development of the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program—a large, unmanned surface vessel envisioned for missions such as countermining, reconnaissance and logistic resupply. Researchers launched the first vessel for trials in January in Oregon, and will christen it on April 7.

Research to master the information explosion centers on big data and cybersecurity efforts, Prabhakar said. A key effort is called Mining and Understanding Software Enclaves (MUSE) and brings a big data approach to the writing of software itself in an attempt to safeguard software from errors that can cripple security protocols.

“In cybersecurity, the challenge that we are all painfully aware of is that every year we use more information, we adopt more information systems. We're doing that because of the value of all of that information,” Prabhakar said. “But every time we do that, the attack surface just grows and grows. Our challenge at DARPA is to create the cybersecurity technologies that put cybersecurity on a different trajectory, not just the reactive capability we have today.”

One program, called Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS), tackles the “patchwork behemoth that is the U.S. electrical grid” and would provide officials with automated systems to restore power within a week of an attack.

Lastly, the directors spoke of the agency's efforts to tap sciences and mathematics for a number of revolutionary programs. For example, its Agnostic Compact Demilitarization of Chemical Agents (ACDC) program seeks to neutralize chemical weapon agents and turn them into safe, fertilized soil. And the agency's Revolutionary Enhancement of Visibility by Exploiting Active Light-fields (REVEAL) manipulates physics to try to develop technology that might let troops see what is behind an obstacle or look around corners. 

Despite the cutting-edge work to safeguard national security, DARPA’s mission makes up just 2 percent of the federal research and development (R&D) budgets, which are only one-third of what the country spends on R&D, she said. “If you turn the clock back to the post second-World War era, most of the R&D in the country was being funded by the government, and defense was a vast proportion of that,” Prabhakar said. “Both of those trends have reversed and it’s important to recognize that was sort of the plan. The whole reason that there were all of these massive investments in R&D, they were for national security and to go into space, but they were also in order to prime the pump for economic growth.”

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