Defense Media Network

DARPA’s Enterprise Disruption

  • Achieving air dominance is essential to securing victory in combat. This tenet is so central to the American way of war that it is now nearly impossible to imagine a time when we faced a truly contested air regime. Yet 26,000 U.S. airmen were lost in the European theater during World War II – more than the number of Marines who perished in the Pacific. Our adversaries fully understand how critical control of the skies is to American victory, and they are working to deny us that control. We must ask ourselves if success in combat can be achieved without devoting immense resources to suppression of air defense systems and enemy aircraft, and what technologies would be needed to allow for this. Might it be possible for us to forgo the next round of stealth appliques and focus on those enabling capabilities to permit our air forces to be detected and even tracked by the adversary, but make them simply impossible to shoot down? Rather than air dominance, we would achieve an undeterrable air presence – a disruptive capability that our adversaries will not have prepared for and which can be expected to impose considerable cost to mitigate. One option: Hypersonic weapons, which, even if detected, are difficult to defend against owing to their speed and maneuverability. DARPA’s Hypersonic Airbreathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) and Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) programs will demonstrate the technologies for enabling hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles, respectively, with flight tests slated to occur over the next two years.
  • The aircraft carrier is the only platform that can adequately project power in the maritime domain and must therefore be protected at all cost. I’ve already discussed how Japan continued building powerful battleships long after the battleship’s deficiencies were understood and exploited by the United States and its carrier strike groups. To believe that the carrier can be defended indefinitely, in the face of capabilities such as China’s DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, which could be fielded in quantity from long range, is to ignore reality. The carrier is an extremely high-value asset and will be targeted. Like the obsolete battleship, they will eventually be forced to retreat to safe distances or risk destruction. This requires us to posit a future without the power-projection capacity of the supercarrier – and to ask how we will win a maritime engagement in its absence. Perhaps proliferation and disaggregation of the carrier’s air wing into many smaller, easier-to-produce platforms is an alternative to ever-more-exquisite defensive schemes. It behooves us to ask what technologies are required to achieve this end, and to begin working on them now. DARPA’s Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) may point the way to one possible future: Small, autonomous naval vessels that can operate without human intervention over ranges of thousands of miles, linked together, and operating as a distributed combat force, with no precious “center.”
  • Ground combat is, at its essence, close combat – you must meet the enemy symmetrically, gun against gun, tank against tank, to achieve victory. No other domain is as defined by its penchant for “stand in” combat as the land domain. Our troops sit heroically atop armored personnel carriers to draw fire from snipers hiding on urban rooftops. They drive over improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to ferry materiel and man checkpoints to draw out the suicide bomber. They interface intimately with an enemy that wishes to deny us our inherent technological advantages by forcing face-to-face engagements. Our goal should be to refuse the gambit offered by the adversary and work to achieve standoff effects in the same manner that we take for granted in the other physical domains. We must buffer our personnel on the ground with ultra-long-range munitions and networks of autonomous agents that detect and discern (and defeat) the enemy long before physical contact is ever made. DARPA’s Urban Reconnaissance through Supervised Autonomy (URSA) program – a necessary and responsible first step – aims to use unmanned agents to autonomously detect hostile forces and establish positive identification of combatants in the complex, uncertain, and unsafe urban battlefield.
  • The space domain must evolve in a manner analogous to that of the air and maritime domains, with combat functions emerging to defend our satellites and degrade the space capability of the enemy. Ringing our exquisite spacecraft with defensive and offensive capabilities is a highly predictable countermeasure that will force the United States to incur substantial additional costs – in addition to the large sums of money the country already spends on the assets we operate today. The stark similarity between the space and sea domains becomes clear: You can accept the inherent advantages of the high-value asset – powerful, concentrated warfighting capability – and be forced to defend it – or you can opt out and disrupt the enemy calculus, which assumes we will adhere to sunk cost and “the way it’s always been done.” One pathway of such disruption is to proliferate and disaggregate capability and present our adversaries with an entirely new problem set – hundreds or thousands of commodity platforms, easily replenished and individually expendable. The value of this approach? Deterrence. Why start shooting if your shots cause minimal damage and your activities are instantly attributable? Recreating our space order of battle without high-value assets (and their associated cost and deployment schedule problems) will allow us to tighten our own innovation cycle and give our enemy pause. DARPA’s Blackjack program will leverage low-cost commercial satellites and the emerging space-based internet to provide ubiquitous sensor coverage and change the space community’s incentive structure for risk acceptance. Our Launch Challenge will demonstrate an on-demand small launch capability, allowing us to constitute, reconstitute, and technologically refresh our capabilities and respond to (if not pre-empt altogether) emerging threats.

It has been a very long time since the Department of Defense and its industrial base were forced to re-examine the fundamental assumptions that underlie the American way of war. This is understandable: Without an event as momentous and threatening as Pearl Harbor, one that forces a reassessment of everything we thought we understood about the world, it is difficult to make a case for a change that requires wholesale revamping of acquisition, requirements, operational planning, and tactics. While some might argue that 9/11 represented such an event, the threat was never existential, and it couldn’t force the level of soul-searching that dragged our nation into World War II.

Disruptive change is essential if we hope to confound (and deter) potential adversaries. Slow and deliberate must give way to rapid and risk-accepting. Complex, exquisite systems must be shelved in favor of commodities, and “good enough” platforms and networks.

For the past three decades, we’ve chosen to sharpen the saw, doubling down on the approaches we’ve grown comfortable with – stealth and precision weaponry in the air domain, concentration of power in high-value assets in the sea and space domains, and increasing the proficiency of our small units on land, mostly against irregulars and insurgents. This tendency to stagnation in thinking and action is the real challenge we’re facing in all of the warfighting domains: We are so intent on improving what we have in hand already that we prevent ourselves from fully seeing and addressing the actual and rapidly evolving threat we face. And the real threat is an adversary that can anticipate our moves and countermoves and act inside our decision cycles, be they tactical or strategic. Only disruptive moves – moves that the enemy could not have expected based on past behavior – will upset the enemy’s plans and make it expensive for them to act. If the disruption is sufficiently extreme, the cost of building or using the countermeasure will be too high and we will have achieved our goal: deterrence.

Blackjack networked constellation disruptive DARPA web

DARPA’s Blackjack program might provide the means to transition many of today’s national security space missions from big, expensive satellites to a networked constellation consisting of many inexpensive, maneuverable satellites in low Earth orbit. DARPA image

Our senior leaders are cognizant of the danger and are speaking out. Dr. Michael Griffin, the Defense Department’s Under Secretary for Research and Engineering, has stated that American military superiority “was bought for us by our forebears.” It is not a birthright. Gen. John Hyten has noted that our satellite systems are now “big, fat, juicy targets.” He goes on to say, “I watch what our adversaries do. I see them moving quickly into the space domain. They are moving very fast, and I see our country not moving fast, and that causes me concern.” We have to re-assess our decades-old strategy, founded on a belief in a perpetual Pax Americana and U.S. technological superiority, and make needed changes.

The recent reported loss of the Zuma spacecraft is a painful reminder that the tried-and-true path is faltering. Disruptive change is essential if we hope to confound (and deter) potential adversaries. Slow and deliberate must give way to rapid and risk-accepting. Complex, exquisite systems must be shelved in favor of commodities, and “good enough” platforms and networks. To disrupt, to sow chaos in our adversaries’ plans, requires us to embrace that selfsame chaos and disruption within our own culture – and we can’t wait any longer.

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