By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 14, 2014 – Despite a year of workforce furloughs and dwindling budgets, the Defense Department’s science and technology enterprise reports advances ranging from a full hypersonic weapon system and high-energy lasers to light-based brain treatments and new core capabilities in cyber warfare, senior DOD officials told a Senate panel today.
Alan Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, and Dr. Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, testified on defense research and innovation before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense.
Shaffer told the panel the DOD workforce has produced remarkable achievements but now shows signs of stress due to downsizing-furlough-shutdown challenges of the past year.
“These affected the health of our workforce and the programs they execute in ways we are just beginning to understand,” he said. “We have begun to address the challenges but they remain a concern to us.”
The fiscal 2015 science and technology budget request is down about 5 percent, to $11.5 billion compared to fiscal 2014’s $12 billion request, Shaffer added.
“DOD tries to balance our program [but] there are factors that led Defense Secretary [Chuck] Hagel to conclude in his Feb. 24 budget rollout that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted,” Shaffer said.
DOD is in its third year of a protracted budget drawdown, he added, and Hagel has described three major areas that make up the budget -- force size, readiness and modernization.
The current budget drives force reduction but this reduction will take several years to yield savings, Shaffer said. In the fiscal 2015 budget, readiness and or modernization will pay a larger percentage of the overall department bill.
“To address the challenges,” he added, “we needed to examine the strategy we’re using to focus the S&T investment on high-priority areas [and] from that review emerged a strategy for investment.”
DOD invests in science and technology for three reasons, Shaffer said.
- To mitigate new and emerging threat capabilities, “and we see a significant need in the areas of electronic warfare, cyber, counter-weapons of mass destruction, and preserving space capabilities.”
- To affordably enable new or extended capabilities in military systems and future systems, “and there is a significant need to grow department systems’ engineering, modeling, and simulation and prototyping.”
- To develop technology surprise, and “we see significant need in areas such as autonomy, human systems, quantum sensing and big data.”
Shaffer said despite the challenges, the department continues to perform, including in areas such as understanding and treating traumatic brain injury.
“In addition to the DARPA Brain Initiative, the department has developed successful technologies in this area in the medical research program and in our Army's research program,” he told the panel.
“The combination of DARPA's small blast gauge to measure the [amount of blast exposure] to the head, coupled with the Defense Health Program's advances in therapeutics in photonic[, or light,] medicine will allow us to treat traumatic brain injury] more quickly and effectively,” Shaffer said.
From that program, researchers have discovered that intense light outside the skull prevents brain tissue decay after a TBI-inducing event. The treatment is in clinical trials, Shaffer said.
In another program, the Air Force X-51 Waverider hypersonic demonstration was the second successful demo of powered scramjet technology, he added.
A scramjet, according to technical descriptions, is a variant of a ramjet air-breathing engine but one in which combustion takes place in the craft’s supersonic airflow.
This demonstrates “that we are getting close to developing a full hypersonic system,” Shaffer said. “No one else in the world has done this.”
The Navy is making dramatic progress on high-energy laser systems and deploying a 30-kilowatt electric laser on the USS Ponce, an Austin-class amphibious transport dock, this summer.
If successful, Shaffer said, “this will be the first operational deployment of a directed-energy system.”
The Army is forging next-generation helicopters with their joint multirole technology demonstrator, he told the panel, a program now in the design phase with four vendors.
“These successes highlight that, in spite of a difficult year and in spite of difficult budget pressures,” Shaffer said, “the DOD S&T program continues to produce capability for our future force.”
In her testimony, Prabhakar explained that DARPA is part of the DOD S&T community but also part of the larger national research and development cosystem.
Within these communities, she said, DARPA’s role is “to make the pivotal early investments that change what's possible so we can take big strides forward in our national security capabilities.”
The agency itself was created to prevent the kind of technological surprise the United States and others experienced in 1956 when the Soviets launched Sputnik, she told the panel, “and we've delivered on our mission for 56 years by creating a few surprises of our own.”
DARPA’s output is technology, she added, “but we count our successes when our technologies change outcomes. Every time a stealth aircraft evades an air defense system, every time a soldier on the ground can place himself precisely using GPS so he can call for fires, every time a radar tells a carrier strike group about a threat that's out there long before it sees [them] -- that's when we've succeeded in our mission.”
In each case, she said, DARPA made the early investments, showed what was possible, and then the larger community turned the ideas into real capabilities.
“It took our partners that we work with very closely across the services in science and technology. It also took the services’ further development work and acquisition efforts. Every one of these technologies traces back to research often conducted in universities or other labs, every advance relied on defense and commercial industry, large companies and small,” Prabhakar said. “And at the end of the day it took warfighters to turn those technologies into real military capabilities.”
That’s how the ecosystem works, she said.
For the DARPA portion of it, Prabhakar observed, “the mission we had of breakthrough technologies for national security has not changed over 56 years. The world in which we work continues to change but that core mission is still why our people charge through the front doors every single morning.”
One surprise being created today at DARPA involves the classic approach to major military systems, which has become so costly and inflexible, she said, “that it's really not going to be effective for the challenges that we'll face in the future.”
Several DARPA investments focus on rethinking complex military systems, Prabhakar added, and agency scientists and engineers are coming up with powerful approaches for new radars and weapons, new ways to do navigation and communications, and new ways to create space systems.
In a very different arena, the director said, “we can see the massive scale of information changing every aspect of national security. We're creating a new breed of cybersecurity technology so we can actually trust the information we've become so reliant on.”
DARPA scientists are inventing new tools to keep up with and to begin using this explosion of data, she added. One example is a new program that tackles networks involved in human trafficking.
Such trafficking networks easily can hide in vast online data, so finding ways to see bad actors in these volumes of data is part of the objective of DARPA’s program, the director said.
Another program, called Plan X, is a foundational cyber warfare program that DARPA is building to create the visibility and understanding of cyberspace, Prabhakar said, “so we can start to deal with cyber warfare as it is happening today and where it will be in the future.”
Cybersecurity is one of the core foundations as people become increasingly reliant on information, the director said.
“I think we're all familiar with the challenges that our businesses and our national security enterprise face because of cyberattacks that are happening on a constant basis,” she added, “some driven by nation states, some by organizations, and some just by individuals because so many individuals around the world have at their fingertips now the ability to participate in this domain for better or for worse.”
Prabhakar added, “We think that cyber environment, in which we are in a conflict today, that's going to continue to escalate.
Much of the conversation about cybersecurity has been about computers and networks and they are important to keep secure, she said, but all embedded systems are highly vulnerable.
“One of our researchers a couple of years ago showed that they could hack the speedometer on a car,” the director told the panel. “If a speedometer on a car is vulnerable, then it's a good thing to realize that all of our embedded military systems are also vulnerable. Everything has a computer in it today.”
At DARPA, the director added, “we think Plan X is going to become integral to kinetic warfighting of the future.”
Plan X core capabilities, she said, will give senior decision makers the ability to see what's happening in cyberspace, to plan actions, to predict collateral effects, to avoid certain effects and to do battle damage assessments.
Across the DARPA portfolio, Prabhakar said, improving information systems security is one of the agency’s highest priorities.