Lawmakers Chop $246 Million from DARPA Request, Cite ‘Chronic Under-execution’

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WASHINGTON — Congressional appropriators slashed 2010 funding for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), citing the Pentagon outfit’s recent struggles with technology development.

House and Senate appropriators stripped hundreds of millions of dollars from the agency’s request for the 2010 defense spending bill, which was signed into law in December by President Barack Obama. DARPA received $246 million less than the requested $3 billion, according to Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

In a statement, Obey blamed the funding reduction on the agency’s “chronic under-execution” on weapon development programs.

House-Senate appropriations conferees also denied the agency’s request for $135 million to launch development programs, according to a conference report that accompanied the final spending measure.

DARPA could get $85 million for new starts this year, but only if agency brass satisfy the lawmakers’ desire for reams of data.

Asked what drove the conferees, Matt Mazonkey, a spokesman for House Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), said in an e-mail: “The problem has been with DARPA’s inability to allocate and execute funds.” The conference report noted that DARPA, which spent $16 million on new programs in 2008 and $28 million in 2009, asked for more than four times that amount in 2010.

DARPA requested $3.13 billion overall in 2009 for research projects, and $3.25 billion in 2010.

Several former congressional aides said the agency’s slow spending is nothing new.

In their report, conferees noted that the agency has made some “management changes,” but concluded those changes “to address DARPA’s historic budget execution challenges are likely to require some time before taking effect.” DARPA officials declined to comment.

Longtime DARPA Director Tony Tether departed in February 2009 after moving the agency’s focus from long­term concepts to gear that could be fielded in a year or two. Critics said the shift hindered funding and stifled innovation.

Last July, Regina Dugan took over as director. She has made some changes to address the problems cited by the appropriations conferees, but they concluded that Dugan had not had enough time to scrutinize and tweak the 2010 budget plan.

DARPA may recover some of the 2010 money for new programs. “Following the receipt of additional information from the new DARPA director, the recommendation provides $85,000,000 … for fiscal year 2010 new starts to be selected by the director,” the report said.

The requested data include:

  • A list of all programs to be started this year.
  • Program descriptions and objectives.
  • The expected duration of each new start.
  • All associated out-year funding requirements for each new start.
  • Planned technology readiness levels.
  • Service transition partners for each new start.

Putting together such detailed packets about each proposed program will take time, leaving in question just how soon DARPA will get the $85 million — if it does at all.

Thomas Christie, a former director of the Pentagon’s Operational Testing and Evaluation outfit, said he was not surprised by DARPA’s recent struggles, or by the appropriators’ collective foot being put down.

“What have they produced in the last 10 years that actually had an impact, given the astounding size of that budget?” Christie asked.

The agency’s problems go beyond mere program management, Christie said. “DARPA is totally out of touch with what the services want,” he said.

What’s more, the services prefer to run their own major research and development programs, he said.

That often leaves DARPA projects out in the cold, he added, “suffering from not-invented-here syndrome.”