In 2014, DARPA signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to jointly fund the ACTUV prototype, a 132-foot-long, 140-ton trimaran whose performance in a series of at-sea evaluations indicated it could perform an expanded set of roles beyond antisubmarine warfare (ASW). In 2018, DARPA transitioned the prototype system, with the name of Sea Hunter, to ONR for further development. For the Navy, the payoff has been significant: After allowing its R&D partner, DARPA, to assume some of the early risk, the Navy has acquired a revolutionary prototype that could become an entirely new class of naval vessel, capable of traveling thousands of miles over the open ocean, for months at a time, without a single crewmember aboard.
“DARPA develops technology to the point where we prove it’s operationally possible,” said Reed. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, the technology can satisfy this operational concept,’ and then it will get developed and made more mature somewhere else. And we’ll move on to do the next hard problem.”
The ACTUV partnership fits this description. Congress, duly impressed by the Sea Hunter’s capabilities, has approved funds for the Navy to buy another one and to conduct further evaluations. These revolutionary vessels could be the vanguard of a new era in naval warfare, in which the world’s oceans are patrolled by fleets of autonomous surface ships assigned to specific missions: hunting submarines, relaying communications, clearing minefields, or conducting surveillance.
The speed and urgency of today’s technological change compel DARPA program managers, in partnership with their service counterparts, to close near-term technology gaps that weaken national security. And while these relationships are often the key to planning, launching, and aiming a DARPA program squarely at fielded results, a program sometimes proves important enough to national security that extra measures are taken to insure it crosses the finish line. One approach on these occasions has been to establish a joint office devoted entirely to the development of an application, as DARPA and other DOD entities have done with past acquisitions or projects. A recent example of this specialized-office approach, the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) Deployment Office, or LDO, transitioned a suite of technologies into a capability that was honored with the 2017 Defense Laureate award by the editorial staff of Aviation Week in recognition of excellence in the technology’s sophistication and the execution of the LRASM program.
The road to establishing LDO began in 2008, when the U.S. military was five years into grueling combat operations in the Middle East. While other nations were developing supersonic anti-ship missiles with increasing strike reach as well as sophisticated electronic anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) countermeasures (involving long-range strike, sensors, guidance, and other military technologies), the American arsenal was falling behind. The former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Robert F. Willard, identified an Urgent Operational Need – an anti-ship missile less dependent on traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and with a longer range than existing missiles in this category. Willard reached out to DARPA leadership to accelerate LRASM toward an operational and fielded status.
The key to developing these capabilities so rapidly, Reed said, was to structure a process that more closely resembled commercial technical development – a process driven by time rather than technical milestones or specifications.
The weapon developed over the next few years was based on the airframe of Lockheed’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM). Successive flight tests that began in 2013 demonstrated LRASM’s ability to navigate independently, including traversing pre-established waypoints before transitioning to autonomous guidance; identify a moving naval target from among a group and hit that target; and detect, track, and avoid an obstacle deliberately placed in its path. Demonstrations of the LRASM have been launched from B-1 bombers, an F/A-18 Hornet, and from shipboard vertical launching systems.
The key to developing these capabilities so rapidly, Reed said, was to structure a process that more closely resembled commercial technical development – a process driven by time rather than technical milestones or specifications. “Apple is going to put out a new iPhone every two years,” he said. “They’re going to deliver. So they make choices, in terms of tech development, based on being able to meet that schedule.” The LRASM demonstration was built around a similar concept: maximizing, rather than perfecting, the technical integration of new technologies into the JASSM platform, up to a certain date. “They had a date on which they were going to deliver that capability,” said Reed. “And that was much more of a driving factor than in a traditional DOD acquisition program, which is performance-parameter based.”
After demonstrating the system’s core capabilities in these first flight tests, LRASM became a formal U.S. Navy program of record in early 2015. The LDO transitioned the program to the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in 2016.
The Military and Beyond
A significant challenge to understanding the diverse ways in which DARPA technologies are transitioned is the fact that every program is different. “There are probably at least 15 different models of how you might transition a particular technology,” said Murphy. “Sometimes transitions involve very small components. In some cases, DARPA creates a new material, or a new process that dramatically changes the structural integrity of certain materials. That’s typically a very, very different sort of transition, probably more likely to be taken up and developed by a commercial customer, rather than directly to a military customer.”
Larger-scale, higher-level military “program of record” transitions, such as ACTUV and LRASM, are successful development efforts that receive approval for follow-on funding by the government, to get them to the finish line of actual and acquired warfighting capabilities. Responsibility for this later-stage development, as with ACTUV, often transfers to another service branch’s research operation. These transitions can begin with a “pull” on the part of DARPA researchers (i.e., demonstrating ACTUV’s technology to the point that it proved alluring enough to the Navy to form an R&D partnership) or a “push” from the service (i.e., the statement of Urgent Operational Need that led to LRASM’s development).