What do budget cuts mean for DOD's research arm?

DARPA's leader believes America may be on the cusp of a 'fundamental shift' in allocating funding for defense.

Arati Prabhakar

DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar (DARPA photo)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's mission, now 55 years in the making, centers on researching, developing and producing the Pentagon's most cutting-edge capabilities. But innovation doesn't come cheap, so what happens to DARPA when the money stops flowing?

Fiscal constraints are one of the top concerns for Dr. Arati Prabhakar, DARPA's director since July 2012. According to her, the threats of the world are changing, as are the financial circumstances of the U.S. government, but what is not changing is the need for DARPA to continue to push the technological envelope.

"We believe we may be at the beginning of a fundamental shift in how our society allocates resources to the business of national security," Prabhakar told reporters at the Pentagon on April 24. "What I'm really talking about here are the fiscal pressures that could shape a different future over the coming years and decades, and if it turns out to be the case that we don't allocate this continuing level of support for national security as a society, it actually won't change the act that our job will still be to keep the country as safe and secure as is humanely possible."

Prabhakar noted it is a bigger issue than just sequestration, although her department is facing an 8-percent cut across programs and potential furloughs for DARPA employees through it.

"We've done our best to prioritize within each of [the agency's 12 major programs], to take those cuts where they would have the least impact," she said. "Because we're a projects agency, we are always prioritizing...the first things that got cut were the things that we thought were the least likely to have impact to begin with. It's not a death blow when you take a one-time cut like that. It's quite corrosive...something that over time would certainly erode our ability to do our mission."

One of the areas taking a direct hit is Plan X, DARPA's cyber warfare research program. Prabhakar said the program has been delayed by five months due to sequestration – something that is a "great example of the negative effects." Still, the program – and the larger agency-wide plans to develop cyber capabilities – remains a high priority.

"Plan X is a program that is specifically working toward building really the technology infrastructure that would allow cyber offense to move from the world we're in today, where it's a fine, handcrafted capability that requires exquisite authorities to do anything with it; that when you launch it into the world, you hope that it's going to do what you think it's going to do, but you don't really know," she said.

Prabhakar said she envisions a future where cyber tools are embedded and used just the same as traditional tools of warfare.

That would mean "that a military operator can design and deploy a cyber effect, know what it's going to accomplish, do battle damage assessment and measure what it has accomplished, and, with that, build in the graduated authorities that allow an appropriate individual to take an appropriate level of action," she said.

Cyber is just one critical area that is part of a larger-scale evolution in the threat landscape, including a broad range of types of actors, the U.S. faces going forward, Prabhakar noted.

"The No. 1 major factor that we really pay attention to is this complex, fluid, shifting national security environment that we think we will be facing for an extended period of time." she said. "When you listen to the problems, it's sort of hard to imagine a future where we can get cybersecurity under control. I actually think that is possible. It's not going to happen overnight, but it's something that I think we can really make a big contribution to."

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