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Pentagon's research arm seeks new directions, advantages

By RAY LOCKER | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 26, 2015

Not much worries Arati Prabhakar, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's futuristic research department.

"I'm bullish on things in this country," she told USA TODAY. "We've got a tremendous technological advantage."

But, as she prepares to deliver DARPA's biennial review to the House Armed Services Committee Thursday, she said one thing does trouble her.

"The only thing that keeps me awake at night is the question of whether we are so comfortable with our knowledge that we aren't taking the actions that are needed to keep that edge," Prabhakar said.

DARPA's outline of future priorities spells out an ambitious set of goals at a time of transition for the U.S. military. Expensive land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended or are winding down, and the Pentagon, with DARPA's assistance, is aiming at a different, at times uncertain, future.

The agency has outlined several key areas for which it wants to use the $3 billion the Obama administration is seeking for DARPA's 2016 budget. They include:

• Maintaining dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum. As in most technological areas, rival nations are catching up to the United States and the Pentagon. "To reassert electromagnetic dominance, DARPA is developing advanced algorithms to identify and counter unanticipated enemy radars in real time," the agency's review said.

• Enhancing maritime agility. DARPA has a variety of new programs aimed at adding intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology underwater, including a drone-like mini-submarine that can follow enemy submarines at a fraction of the cost of a traditional sub.

Another initiative is called the Upward Falling Payload, which is a prepositioned underwater pod that would be targeted for the almost 50% of global waters that are more than 4 kilometers deep. Those waters, DARPA notes, provide "vast areas for concealment and storage. ... Concealment provided by the sea also provides the opportunity to quickly engage remote assets that may have been dormant and undetected for long periods of time, while its vastness allows simultaneous operation across great distances." Steven Walker, DARPA's deputy director, said Wednesday that the second phase of that program is scheduled to start soon.

• Big data. The agency wants to get ahead of the growing amount of computerized data to derive insights about adversaries or identify "threat-related behaviors of systems, individuals and groups." The growing concerns about personal privacy and big data have led to a new DARPA program called Brandeis, which is looking for research to "to restructure our relationship with data by shifting the mechanisms for data protection to the data owner rather than the data user," a recent DARPA document shows.

Budget cuts from the process called sequestration, a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act, have hampered DARPA but not killed any specific program, Prabhakar said. Instead, it has slowed the momentum of some programs or prematurely ended some that could have continued with fewer budget restrictions.

The October 2013 government shutdown, which kept many agency employees from coming to work, also hurt the agency's progress, Prabhakar said. Unlike most government agencies, DARPA's technology officers have limited terms, usually three to five years. Many of them have their final days posted on the ID badges they wear at work.

"All of us on the technical staff are short timers," she said. "The hardest thing was during the furloughs and sequestration was that the program managers were crazed because they weren't allowed to come into work."

As Congress debates the president's budget, as well as those proposed by Republican-controlled House and Senate, the agency and its leader hope they can get some budget certainty to help them with their mission.

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