More often now, in the Information Age, technologies spread rapidly into the hands of those who, in the past, would have been late adopters. Today, peer and non-peer competitors around the globe have the ability to create and deploy capabilities that narrow our technical superiority. According to Scott Reed, a special assistant to DARPA’s director who specializes in transitioning DARPA-developed technology, “DOD is not the driver it once was in terms of information technology. So we now need to become more agile to maintain relevance and superiority inside a much more competitive space. Adversaries have easy access to commercial overhead imagery, when not that long ago it was a capability that was only held by the highest order of nations. Now you can buy it off of Google.”
Tom Masiello is director of DARPA’s Adaptive Capabilities Office (ACO), a stand-alone office that works with Reed and other members of the director’s staff to transition new technologies toward operational military capabilities. Avoiding surprise in the warfighting context, Masiello said, is getting more difficult. “Sometimes Americans view it as a birthright that we will automatically have technological superiority over potential adversaries,” said Masiello. “But that’s not necessarily the case … Part of the problem is it just takes too long for us to field advanced technology into military capability. We are not lacking in innovation. We are not lacking in cutting-edge research or technological breakthroughs. The problem is transitioning that high technology into military capability in the field.”
Since its inception 60 years ago, DARPA’s mission has been to ensure the United States is the nation imposing technological surprises on its adversaries, rather than the other way around. For several reasons, meeting that mission – transitioning technology out of the laboratory and into the field, where it can make a difference for people like Dwyer – is more of a challenge today than in the past.
One of the factors that can bog down technological progress and keep innovations from being fielded is the risk-averse posture of the military acquisition process. If, for example, you’re building a $13 billion aircraft carrier, a program whose primary metrics are that it be delivered at cost and on time, there isn’t much incentive to risk using a lot of new technology.
The Pentagon’s budgeting process, in which high-level decision-makers project where they want to spend money over the next five years, often lacks the agility to adapt to the accelerating rate of technological change. “Oftentimes,” said John Murphy, a former Navy pilot who is now DARPA’s Operational Liaison for Technology Transition and Warfighter Engagement, “the DARPA technology is such that just about the time that we’re getting ready to prove it, we’re looking for somebody to begin budgeting for this technology – but there’s no room in the budget, because the budget was created two, three, and four years ago.”
DARPA has developed several strategies to overcome such bureaucratic snags. The agency always has considered program managers – with the many contacts in the military-technology community they often bring with them – to be the primary agents responsible for transition. It always has been a tall order – the tasks of building service acceptance of new technologies, and the associated changes to culture, doctrine, and operations, are arduous. Furthering the cause are transition-devoted professionals, such as Murphy, Masiello, and Reed, who support DARPA’s R&D-centered program offices as they pursue technical breakthroughs. Adding to the collective of transition talent are uniformed military liaison officers (LNOs) whose job is to identify ways in which those breakthroughs can meet the needs of the service branches of which they have on-ground, at-sea, and in-air knowledge and experience.
Enduring connections between DARPA and the service branches expose program managers to warfighting challenges in different domains, while allowing the services to track the progress of relevant and potentially useful technology development efforts. DARPA has intermittently sponsored specific initiatives or events to encourage relationships and sharing of knowledge among DARPA researchers and their customers. But according to Masiello, these programs, such as a “PM Boot Camp,” which connected new program managers with partners in the services, are merely formal structures for carrying out what DARPA does every day. “Our bread and butter is those day-to-day engagements, building those relationships,” he said. “We have formal engagements at the four-star and director levels. But we also foster lower-level informal relationships to help us identify the technology gaps or requirements – the needs of the services and the combatant command – which then enable us to seize opportunities where DARPA technology can meet those gaps or requirements.”
These working relationships, Murphy added, make it more likely that military budgeteers will be aware of new technologies and their development projections far enough in advance that they can be sensitive to the potential for a DARPA project to transition into a fielded capability. That way, he explained, “When the DARPA program is coming to an end, there is … some money to keep the program going and keep the program team together, so that it continues on and then you move forward” into a transition phase.
Murphy himself recently led such a transition in October 2016 when a prototype of the world’s largest uncrewed naval ship, Sea Hunter, arrived under its own power at the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific. DARPA launched this effort in 2010 to develop what’s now known as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV). At the time, an autonomous submarine hunter, operating without remote guidance, seemed a risky investment of the Navy’s limited research funds. Murphy likens the Navy’s reticence to his own skepticism in the 1990s about the value of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) DARPA was developing. “It did require a paradigm shift for traditional aviators to recognize the value of a UAV,” he said, “and I think the same thing has been true for operators of the surface fleet … [autonomous] submarine-hunting was a mission area that people thought was just a leap too far.”
“We have formal engagements at the four-star and director levels. But we also foster lower-level informal relationships to help us identify the technology gaps or requirements – the needs of the services and the combatant command – which then enable us to seize opportunities where DARPA technology can meet those gaps or requirements.”
As the military’s high-risk, high-reward research agency, with years of experience in unmanned vehicle development, DARPA decided to assume the risk that others were reluctant to take on. Over time, said Murphy, as the ACTUV program matured and unmanned vehicles of all types began to be deployed and used on the ground, in the air, and under water, “people . . . began to see that you could do many things with this unmanned surface vessel, as opposed to filling it with human beings and putting it in harm’s way.”