Igniting a Technical Renaissance

October 2007
By Maryann Lawlor
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Personnel from each of the combatant commands, the intelligence community, industry and several U.S. Defense Department agencies listen to panelists discuss warfighter challenges during the second annual Global Joint Intelligence Operations Center symposium. Conference attendees discussed how to develop new solutions and intelligence capabilities to combat threats by improving intelligence. To help develop these capabilities, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence created the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which will research innovative technologies.
Intelligence activity hones in on no-kidding, disruptive, paradigm-changing breakthroughs.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has created an organization that will increase the speed of technical developments and infuse synergy into the intelligence agencies so they can recapture their ability to surprise adversaries. The activity merges the efforts and expertise of three intelligence organizations and takes aim at the process problems that crept into the agencies during the past few years. Among the technical targets will be ways to improve knowledge in the social sciences, neural sciences, biology and nanotechnology.

Modeled after the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is being designed as a premier scientific investigative organization that will benefit all 16 intelligence community agencies. According to Steven Nixon, director, science and technology, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Washington, D.C., the activity will be the focal point and fulcrum of research underway in various agencies, pulling the work together for momentous technical breakthroughs.

IARPA is the consolidation of the National Security Agency’s Disruptive Technology office, previously called the Advanced Research and Development Activity; the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s National Technology Alliance; and the Central Intelligence Agency’s Intelligence Technology Innovation Center. The activity has been formed “to set favorable conditions” that shorten the research and development cycle and reduce costs, Nixon says.

“I’m here to ignite a technical renaissance for the intelligence community. Going back in history, we’ve done some amazing things in intelligence. We were very quick in doing them, and they were very surprising. But today, things seem to take longer and longer and cost more and more. More often than not they’re getting cancelled midway through [the development process]. So we’re really due for that renaissance,” he explains.

At the heart of the organization’s mission is its drive to create the conditions to revive what Nixon says boils down to speed, surprise and synergy. “How do we set conditions that will allow us to gain intelligence much quicker in a fast-paced world? How do we set the conditions to regain our surprise advantage—I’m thinking of novel or revolutionary technologies, things that are very different from what we did before. Finally, we have to set the conditions favorable to working across agencies, working across disciplines and marrying capabilities in ways that we haven’t done before,” he states.

By optimizing existing intelligence community-funded research, IARPA will push work that revives intelligence agencies’ ability to surprise the enemy. It is the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI’s) primary effort to develop “breakthrough, no-kidding, disruptive, paradigm-changing kind of things. We’re going to pull them out of those agencies and consolidate them into one group with critical mass that has the ability to work across all the agencies with less agency-peculiar pressures. That’s the organization we’re calling IARPA,” Nixon relates.

The agency pressures he is referring to are the constant day-to-day demands that are being placed on all of the intelligence agencies as part of the Global War on Terrorism. And in a choice between responding to the needs of a current operation and conducting long-term research, research gets squeezed every time, Nixon points out. “You’re always shooting at the closest wolf to the sled,” he says.

But pressures brought on by current operations are not the only hurdles in the way of cutting-edge research. Each organization within the community has its own successful business model, and changing it can be perceived as a threat, Nixon notes. Although a fact of life in almost every organization, the military broke this mold when it created DARPA, taking the armed forces’ problems and conducting research outside of the services. The results have been revolutionary: the creation of the Internet, global positioning systems and unmanned aerial vehicles. The DNI aspires to bring this same level of success to the intelligence community through IARPA, Nixon says.

Although members of the intelligence agencies will identify the challenges that need solutions, IARPA’s director will be the person who ultimately decides which projects will be pursued. Nixon was the acting director until he was promoted to his current position. Dr. Tim Murphy took over as IARPA’s acting director in August, at which point the DNI’s office began its ardent search for a permanent director.

While the organization’s leader has not yet been determined, the nerve center location has. IARPA’s headquarters will be situated at the research park at the University of Maryland in College Park. In addition, the DNI is considering establishing a satellite office in Virginia.

Like DARPA, the activity does not consist of a single laboratory. Instead, IARPA program leaders will determine the grand vision and architecture of projects, and then scientists, engineers and researchers will carry out the work in companies, colleges, universities and national laboratories throughout the United States, Nixon explains.

Also like DARPA, experts will most likely be brought in to work on projects on a rotational basis of four to six years. IARPA is on the lookout for technical experts who are highly entrepreneurial with good management skills. The activity will give these people the chance to take risks and fail, an opportunity they do not normally have in an environment that requires them to deliver the right answers every day in operational environments. “IARPA can be that place where you can take risks, fail and really go for the blue-sky [technologies],” he declares.

Both the office and the budget are organized in four sections: next-generation, close access and human support; incisive analysis; special projects; and exploratory research. Nixon notes that research in the area of close access is particularly important as targets become smaller and harder to find. “We think we’re going to have to get closer and closer to them, and that’s where the close access comes into play. Study after study has shown that we’re under-funded in that area,” he offers.

Information analysis also is an area in sore need of attention, Nixon adds. “We already have huge amounts of data that we collect, and there’s an overload situation for analysts. How do we help them collaborate better to be more effective and efficient in going through all of that data? The world is very different from where things were in the Cold War. Unfortunately, we haven’t fully migrated from the processes and the culture and the systems that we had during the Cold War,” he observes.

“We view the world as technology is accelerating at breakneck speed—and not just in the U.S., it’s everywhere around the world. We just have to come to grips with it. We can’t just adapt our Cold-War perspectives that are pegged on that environment and hope to be successful, because we won’t. That’s that major renaissance that I’m speaking about. We not only need to recapture the goodness of what we were able to do in the past but also bring into play all of the new things that Google and Apple and others are figuring out and then also push the technology in new ways that no one has anticipated,” Nixon proposes. Intelligence is on the ascendance, and anything the community can do to develop major surprising breakthroughs will give agencies a tremendous advantage in the future, he adds.

Maj. David Ahrens, USAF, senior intelligence duty officer, Combined Air Operations Center, Southwest Asia, coordinates aircraft operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. The services rely heavily on intelligence from both military and intelligence community sources, so one of IARPA’s priorities will be to develop ways to sift through
the reams of information pouring into intelligence agencies.
While intelligence agencies have invested in technology related to the hard sciences for a long time, they have been remiss in their attention to the human element of the Global War on Terrorism, Nixon notes. To address this shortfall, IARPA will focus on capabilities that the DNI believes have not been adequately funded in the areas of behavior, culture and language. The goal is to find technologies that help intelligence personnel so they can “plow through the tons of data that we have in foreign languages,” he relates.

Nixon also believes IARPA can be instrumental in other nontraditional military scientific fields. “Neural science is an area that in the future may pay dividends. One of the big benefits would be helping analysts. How do you ingest massive amounts of data and make sense of it? We think that if we understand the human brain better, we may be able to enhance learning, enhance the ability of the brain to process information and present it in the right way. There’s also the whole issue of deception and how we can try to find out if people are telling the truth or not,” he says.

Research in biology also could benefit the intelligence community. “Biology, someone said, is to this century what physics was to the last century in terms of the groundbreaking discoveries that change our understanding of how things work,” Nixon reveals.

Nixon admits that work already is underway in these areas at many of the laboratories and organizations throughout the government and military. However, he points out that the field of intelligence always has its own take on information and capabilities. For intelligence personnel, for example, making devices very, very small, concealable and secure is an imperative. This is one of the reasons the intelligence community must investigate quantum science, he says, and why fundamental research in nanotechnology also is very important.

Although many of the organizational details of IARPA have been worked out, several are still up in the air. For example, under the current plan individual intelligence agencies would be responsible for moving IARPA-developed solutions into the field, just as the services acquire and field DARPA-developed capabilities. But Nixon says another possibility for fielding technologies would be to create cadres of early adopters. “If you can get some folks who are disadvantaged in some way and are hungry for technology, or are just pre-disposed to wanting to be the first ones to use something or be innovative, maybe those folks could lead the charge in terms of how to use it and develop the policy, doctrine or concept of operations. I’m not sure that’s where IARPA will live, but maybe in an experimental basis, it [the activity] could key up a pilot or something like that,” he proposes.

Working with the DNI and IARPA will be advantageous to companies, Nixon contends. The opportunity for technology transfer—solutions developed for intelligence personnel that have commercial applications—is much larger than that of working with the military on items such as high-end platforms. For example, the commercial market for items such as the stealth bomber pale in comparison to the demand in the marketplace for an intelligence function that has to do with massive data sets. “Solving that kind of problem can benefit everyone. So industry will find working with intelligence very attractive since the problems will translate so well to their goals in the commercial world,” he states.

And Nixon believes that while industry will be the major player in developing all of these no-kidding breakthrough technologies, the intelligence community in general and IARPA in particular must hold up its end of the deal. “Companies are going to be doing the work, so it will be up to us to be able to communicate those needs over time. We’re working very furiously to come up with efficient mechanisms to share those needs with industry,” he states.

Web Resources
Office of the Director of National Intelligence: www.odni.gov
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: www.darpa.mil


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