DARPA Sets Tone for Technological Superiority
by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England at a recent conference in the nation's capital noted that the greatest long-term threat to America is not weapons of mass destruction, but rather the prospect of losing our strength in science and technology.
England's observations are quite sobering, and remind us of the important role that science and technology play in the military superiority of our armed forces. Although technology is just one of a triad of key elements that are needed to maintain our edge on the battlefield — quality people is the primary component, in addition to first-class training.
Technology is America's great strength and one that we cannot afford to lose. In this context, it is fitting to highlight the important contributions that the Defense Department makes to the nation in this critical realm. In fiscal year 2007, defense S&T remains fairly robust at $13.3 billion — this includes programs in basic research (6.1) and applied research (6.2 and 6.3). One issue of concern, however, is that S&T is only 17 percent of the entire defense RDT&E (research, development, testing and evaluation) budget. That 17 percent share is expected to decline.
The biggest share of the defense S&T budget — $3 billion — belongs to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
DARPA truly is on the leading edge of technology, and provides a winning model for how the government can achieve genuine innovation that also helps us win wars.
Its central areas of investment today focus on robust, secure self-forming networks, detection, precision ID, tracking and destruction of elusive targets, networked manned and unmanned systems, urban area operations, location and characterization of underground structures, assured use of space, cognitive systems, bio-technologies and core technologies such as materials and electronics, according to a recent industry report that was published by the Government Electronics & Information Technology Association.
A number of DARPA projects in recent years highlight not only the innovative thinking at the agency but also its effective approach to establishing partnerships with industry and academia.
DARPA efforts, for example, spawned the development and eventual production of some of the most successful unmanned aerial vehicles currently employed by the military services. And the work continues. Most recently, DARPA, in a joint effort with NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, performed the first-ever autonomous probe-and-drogue airborne refueling operation.
This technology is a critical enabler for affordable, persistent, unmanned strike systems. The same technology also promises to enhance reliability, safety and the range of air refueling manned aircraft.
DARPA also is an active participant in the Defense Department's efforts to develop alternative energy sources. Under the BioFuels program, DARPA is looking for processes that will efficiently produce alternative military jet fuel from agriculture or aquaculture crops.
Another interesting development worth highlighting is DARPA's unveiling of an "immune building" at the Army's Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. It is a research effort to develop, integrate, and demonstrate a system to protect building occupants against chemical and biological warfare agents. The technologies in this program will ultimately be made available to the entire military community through a modeling and simulation toolkit, so building planners and designers can incorporate building protection strategies into new facilities, and retrofit such systems into existing ones.
In the medical field, DARPA also is pushing the edge of technology. It recently awarded a research contract that could lead to the development of drugs to enhance the restorative benefits derived from sleep and offset problems associated with sleep deprivation.
DARPA is one of several government sponsors of the University of Texas Health Science Center's new animal imaging center. The center will allow researchers to test early-stage drugs on mice, rats and primates to find the best candidates to use for drug trials with humans. It is one of the first imaging centers in the country that is able to conduct research on battlefield diseases in animals.
Organizations such as DARPA often work with small businesses, sometimes under traditional contracts and under Small Business Innovation Research programs. The Defense Department funds a billion dollars each year in SBIR projects at small technology companies — projects that serve a defense need and have commercial applications. The program competitively awards up to $850,000 in early-stage R&D funding directly to small technology companies or individual entrepreneurs who form a company.
By the way, this topic and other issues relevant to small businesses, including opportunities in defense science and technology, will be discussed at the National Small Business Conference, which NDIA is hosting next May in Houston, Texas.
The future of this country, as Secretary England said, "depends on how we respond to the challenge" of maintaining our technological superiority, both on and off the battlefield.
Vital to achieving that goal is to sustain a healthy level of funding. The services and DARPA currently enjoy healthy budgets, but according to some estimates, basic science spending is projected to decline as the Pentagon shifts funds to other pressing priorities. That situation has to be watched closely so we do not sacrifice the seed corn of our future capabilities and the superiority that we seek.
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