DARPA Head: U.S. Defense Tech Lags in Many Areas

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WASHINGTON — A top Pentagon researcher said the U.S. will face stiff competition to keep its technological superiority as gaps appear in some key domestic manufacturing capabilities and scientific know-how spreads globally.

Arati Prabhakar, who became director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in July, told a crowd of top defense scientists Oct. 22 that the rest of the world is catching up fast. In “the post World War II era … we had the luxury of working at a time when so many of the advanced technologies that we use in national security were invented and developed and really came to life in the United States … and no one else had access to these technologies,” she said.

“That is not the case today for so many of the technologies on which our national security depends,” Prabhakar said at an annual conference hosted by the Office of Naval Research Science and Technology Partnership near Washington.

“If you think about materiel and many areas of manufacturing technologies, these are globally available technologies, and in some cases there are technologies that we simply … don’t have. Not only do we not have an advantage, we may not even have some of these capabilities left in the United States.

“So our task today is a little bit different because in these areas, we still have to create the most effective defense solutions despite the fact that we don’t get that edge.”

A key example of gaps in the U.S. technology base is the telecommunications industry, where no U.S. company now can provide “single source” start-to-finish services for large telecom projects, said Darren Hayes, a computer security expert at Pace University in New York.

“There are many situations where the U.S. has lost its ability to be competitive,” Hayes said in an interview. “Sometimes it’s because the U.S. can’t compete on price, and sometimes, unfortunately, it’s because the intellectual property has been stolen.”

That can make the United States vulnerable if government officials or contractors have to go overseas for new technologies.

Those concerns were highlighted by an Oct. 8 congressional report criticizing China’s top telecom network equipment companies, Huawei and ZTE, because potential Chinese state influence on them poses a danger to U.S. national security. The House Intelligence Committee urged regulations barring those firms from doing business with government agencies or merging with key U.S. companies.

Many defense officials fear money for research and development will face more pressure in the coming years if Pentagon budgets tighten and personnel costs keep rising.

When making hard budget decisions, DARPA is likely to eliminate some lower-performing projects to ensure that enough money remains for the most promising new tech breakthroughs, Prabhakar said.

Despite the challenges, she said she is optimistic the United States can stay ahead of the pack for the near future. “For some period of time … we can aspire to having U.S. capabilities that our adversaries don’t have,” she said. “When I look at our research base, particularly at our universities and own research labs, I do see brewing … a new set of capabilities.”

Those include “the ability to advance electronic warfare in dramatic ways, the ability to conduct effective cyberdefense but also cyberoffense in a tactical environment, the ability to take communications technology to a new level, the next generation of [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] technology.”