WASHINGTON — Seeing a defense budget that is facing increasing pressure, the head of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) spoke to reporters Wednesday about the need to protect research spending.
The briefing, which coincided with DARPA’s release of a new “framework” outlining the agency’s mission and recent successes, focused on DARPA’s role in national security.
Neither the briefing nor the framework provided significant new details about DARPA programs. The framework’s first page was a photocopy of a citation the agency received in 2012 from then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
“We believe we may be at the beginning of a fundamental shift in how our society allocates resources to the business of national security, I’m not talking today about the immediate issues around sequestration,” said DARPA director Arati Prabhakar.
With a combination of increasing reliance on technology and fiscal pressures facing the US national security apparatus, Prabhakar spoke of DARPA’s importance.
“I actually think in the complex world that we’re living in today we need what DARPA does more than ever,” she said.
In a letter accompanying the framework, Prabhakar addressed those who control the agency’s funding.
“We wrote this document to share our current framework with all these partners, Congress, and our senior leadership in the Pentagon and in the Administration,” she wrote. “Your support of DARPA’s mission is vital to our success.”
The agency is already seeing the effects of sequestration, the automatic budget cuts to defense spending that became official last month, Prabhakar said. The cuts amount to roughly an 8 percent drop in DARPA’s budget, delaying some programs, including the offensive cyber weapons initiative known as Plan X, and likely furloughs for employees.
“It’s not a death blow when you take a one-time cut like that, but it is quite corrosive,” Prabhakar said. “It’s certainly something that over time could corrode our ability to do our mission.”
DARPA’s efforts to stay on the leading technological edge can create projects that sound more like science fiction than reality, leading to cyclical criticism about the advisability of specific projects from lawmakers. But it’s that approach which differentiates the agency, the framework said.
“Reaching for outsized impact means taking on risk, and high risk in pursuit of high payoff is a hallmark of DARPA’s programs,” it read.
Asked if she was concerned that DARPA could face disproportionate cuts in the future because some of the agency’s projects are difficult to explain to lawmakers, Prabhakar said that the agency continues to receive strong support.
“I think if you look historically, you will find that part of the reason for our success has been extended periods, many many decades during which there has been strong support for DARPA, in Republican administrations, in Democratic administrations, in times when budgets were tight and in times when budgets weren’t so tight,” she said. “My job as agency leader is always to try to demonstrate our value.”