DARPA to shift away from applied battlefield tech

DARPA Director, Arati Prabhakar and Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos

DARPA Director, Arati Prabhakar and Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall

Agency should recommit to traditional mission of long-range research, director says.

As the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan winds down, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency should focus less on responding to immediate conflicts and more on tackling obstacles the United States could face years or decades in the future, the agency’s director said Friday.

“We’re coming through an extended period with two active wars,” DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said. “Very naturally some of our focus over the last many years has been shifted to taking our technologies into the field and getting our products into the hands of warfighters. I think we’ve made some real impact with that . . . We learned a lot in that process as well.”

But the Pentagon’s research arm can best serve the military and the nation by focusing less on current challenges and returning to its traditional mission.

“DARPA’s core mission is to be preparing for the future,” Prabhakar said. “I think it’s a very important time for us as an agency, given our charter, to put our heads up and look ahead and be cognizant of national security challenges much broader than the counterinsurgency focus that, of course, has pulled in some of our more applied work.”

Prabhakar became DARPA director July 30. She was speaking at a breakfast event sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.

The agency will shift to focus more on cybersecurity, analysis of large and complex data sets, and the next generation of biological research, she said.

Among the challenges DARPA will face, Prabhakar said, is adapting to a world in which commercial rather than government technology underlies most complex systems and in which the United States has less of an edge in technological innovation.

“We as a country and [DARPA] as a national security enterprise had an extended period of time during which the United States had huge technological advantages and huge industrial advantages across many, many sectors,” she said. “Today, we live in a world where so much of the technology we rely on for national security is globally available -- whether it’s all aspects of information technology or materials technology or manufacturing and production technology . . . One thing we must do is continue to be the world’s best user and the best builder of capabilities from this globally available tool set.”

As such, senior leaders must determine which elements of research and production are so vital to national security that the nation must maintain domestic capabilities and which can be purchased reliably from abroad, she said.

The agency also will try to help combat the relative decline in the number of U.S. students pursuing science, technology, engineering and math degrees, she said.

“One of the very first things we do to contribute is to do the projects that are so inspiring that kids get excited about doing technology,” Prabhakar said. “I think that’s a nontrivial contribution that DARPA makes.”