For DARPA, Defense Planning Proceeds at Mach 20

As enemies of the U.S. become more technologically advanced, agency takes countermeasures to Mach 20.

By + More

The folks who stay up all night worrying about such things at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have a real insomnia inducer for the people of the United States: Our most advanced technology is in enemy hands. But for those enemies, DARPA has a warning shot: It's up to the challenge.

DARPA, one of the government's most secretive military agencies, rarely talks publicly about what it does to keep the nation sleeping soundly. Which made the recent appearance in front of a House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities by Deputy Director Ken Gabriel such an eye-opener.

Gabriel, who said DARPA's responsibility "is to the uncomfortable," talked about what troubles him most: The simple fact that widely available commercial electronics are being tweakeed by America's enemies to counter even America's most sophisticated military systems.

"Unintentionally, and without malice, commercial consumer electronics has created vulnerabilities by enabling sensors, computing, imaging, and communications capabilities that, as recently as 15 years ago, were the exclusive domain of military systems," Gabriel said. Such technology is now used routinely by millions of people.

[How Israel Can Nix Iran's nukes.]

This is not an "abstract vulnerability" for the country, Gabriel said. The U.S. military has not enjoyed "spectrum dominance" since about 1997. In those 15 years, a dozen or so countries have taken full advantage of the explosion in freely and commercially available electronics to create their own electronic warfare systems.

"It is now possible to purchase commercial off-the-shelf components for more than 90 percent of the electronics needed in an EW system," Gabriel said. "This has reduced the barriers to developing, producing, and fielding such systems to within the capabilities of many nation-states and non-state actors.

"This means that our conventional approaches no longer afford us a time or capability advantage. Increasingly, our conventional approaches are divergent with the threat."

Now, this sounds really bad. But DARPA is learning, too. It's leveraging these very same commercial, off-the-shelf systems to counter these emerging threats--and even transcend them when it makes sense. That doesn't mean reinventing the wheel.

"If a commercial computer chip is fast enough to accomplish a task in a U.S. military system, there is no point to designing an alternative--just use what is available," Gabriel said. For what it lacks in time, he said proudly, DARPA makes up for in creativity. "We are not doomed to an even playing field just because we are using the same processor chip as an adversary. We can make a network of such chips to overcome the adversary's system."

[Scientists' Life's Work to Search for It on Mars.]

DARPA's own ingenuity is at least partly to blame for this computer race. One day, the agency managed to link four supercomputers in California to share data, then handed off what it learned about networking to the National Science Foundation for broader use in university research. NSF built more supercomputers, and eventually an information spine through the heartland of the country. In the mid-1990s–-yes, somewhat with Al Gore's help as the author of a reauthorization bill--NSF handed this public-private information-sharing partnership fully over to the public.

During this same time period, two researchers at Stanford began working on a search process and built a prototype called BackRub with NSF dollars. It was one of just six initial digital library grants from NSF, and what would become Google took full advantage of the system that DARPA had built.

It's just what DARPA does. Modern threats emerge quickly. So, by necessity, DARPA is in the business of predicting the future. "[Our] singular mission has been to create and prevent strategic surprise," he said. "It may appear that the best way to create strategic surprise is to predict what's next. Predict with great accuracy and as far out as possible."

Take the HTV-2. (Or try.)

The highly secretive HTV-2 is a global strike program expected to feature an unmanned, boost-glide vehicle that could carry a payload to a target at Mach 20.

"Twenty times the speed of sound," Gabriel told officials in Washington about the HTV-2, which would make it the fastest high lift-to-drag ratio aircraft ever built. "That means anywhere in the world in 60 minutes or less. Or New York to Los Angeles in 11 minutes and 20 seconds, with the surface of the vehicle at blast furnace temperatures--3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of molten steel. We are essentially burning the airfoil as we fly it. It might seem impossible. It's not. It's just hard."

There have been two test flights of the HTV-2 so far. The first failed because, Gabriel testified, planners underestimated an aerodynamic effect of hypersonic flight.

During a second test, the prototype reached Mach 20 for a full three minutes. Though both aircraft were ultimately lost, the two tests combined yielded more data about hypersonic travel than has been collected in the past 40 years.

Tomorrow, too, is coming fast. And DARPA plans to be ready.

Which is why its leaders take rare breaks from defense work to let lawmakers know just how valuable (and worthy of funding) the agency is. This country is at a crossroads. We will either build our way out of it--allowing science and technology to drive innovation as it has for decades--or we will begin the long, slow decline of the American empire that so many cynics have predicted for some time.

I'll take the future of innovation, please.

Yes, that means failures as well as successes.

Politicians in Washington, D.C., are paralyzed by fear of losing their jobs at the hands of a nation angry over spending on programs that don't pan out. Thankfully, agencies like DARPA have been largely immune to this paralysis, and are willing to predict the future on our behalf--and act on it.

Because of groundbreaking work by DARPA, you are reading this on the Internet right now.

And because the brains at DARPA see the future coming, enemies of America likely won't, until it's too late for them.

  • Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.
  • Check out our At the Edge blog.
  • Wave Disk Engine Could Be New Hybrid Powerplant.