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Sequester-Hobbled DARPA Takes Aim at New Types of Terrorism

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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GPS satellite

DARPA plans to replace GPS technology with new "game changers" like positional navigation technology (PNT), Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With relevance to homegrown, lone operator terrorist threats highlighted by the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a series of initiatives Wednesday aimed at defending the U.S. against increasingly ambiguous threats.

Whereas its core mission will remain the same—researching new types of technology for the military—the cutting-edge agency in the near term will focus on adapting its technological know-how to wage war against a wide variety of internal and external threats, from individuals, terrorist organizations and other criminal groups, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said at a Pentagon press briefing. Created in 1958, DARPA was originally designed to protect the U.S. from Cold War enemies with advanced technologies, first and foremost the Soviet Union, which had just taken the lead in the space race by successfully putting Sputnik 1 into orbit. “We face a world in which the actors that can put us into deeply uncomfortable positions are no longer limited to nations,” Prabhakar said.

Preparing for these types of threats requires a fundamental rethinking of current systems of national security, Prabhakar said, which would integrate DARPA’s new antiterrorism efforts with its established work in military technology development. The system DARPA envisions would integrate all aspects of U.S. defense infrastructure, from manufacturing to research and development, to reduce dependence on external sources and minimize vulnerability to outside threats. In line with this goal DARPA will also continue to invest in radical new technologies, what Prabhakar called “game changers,” which include more adaptable battleground technologies, fully integrated cyber technology and a new suite of positional technology called position, navigation and timing (PNT) with the goal of phasing out what she called the military’s overreliance on GPS.

Rather than suggesting the military implement each technological advance as it is developed, Prabhakar said the agency would develop new tools for deployment in layers; no single advance will provide the sweeping changes that the agency envisions. “DARPA is in the silver bullet business,” she said, “but only if we use a combination of technologies will we be able to maintain our superiority.”

The program, however. is also in the midst of fiscal woes; as a result of the March federal budget sequester, DARPA’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Defense, took an 8 percent across-the-board cut, a $5.38-billion reduction from the $75 billion it was initially allocated. Plan X, a five-year cyber warfare project aimed at mapping out the entire cyber infrastructure network, was delayed as a direct result of the sequester, Prabhakar said.

Despite DARPA’s budgetary concerns, she said the agency would work to ensure that the U.S. remains one step ahead of other nations in defense technology. “Our future leaders and commanders will have real options—powerful options—for the range of threats in the years ahead,” Prabhakar noted.

About the Author: Science, health and environment reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow on Twitter @erbrod.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. vapur 10:14 pm 04/29/2013

    An attempt to reestablish their funding with fear, for sure. I’m not sure why they develop new death technology that can be adapted by others when we can just bomb our enemies with current stuff. Ever heard of non-proliferation? These reinvigorated efforts won’t stop future bombings similar in execution to the Boston Marathon.

    Link to this
  2. 2. bucketofsquid 5:59 pm 05/28/2013

    Last I checked the Feds assume 10% growth in revenue every year so the “cuts” amount to a decrease in the amount of spending increase.

    Link to this

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