WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s $4.1 billion request for fiscal 2023 prioritizes technologies “critical” for the Pentagon, including microelectronics, biotechnology and artificial intelligence, budget documents show.
DARPA’s detailed fiscal 2023 budget plan was released April 25, nearly a month after the Department of Defense unveiled its top-level spending request. The budget proposal shows a $250 million increase over the $3.8 billion Congress appropriated for DARPA in fiscal 2022, largely driven by an $883 million ask for microelectronics, $414 million for biotech programs and $412 million for AI efforts.
The Pentagon is developing a strategy for investment in 14 critical technologies, many of which are reflected in DARPA’s budget priorities. Director Stefanie Tompkins has said that while other agencies may take incremental steps toward addressing these areas, DARPA wants to provoke major capability shifts through its programs.
“DARPA is looking at what is the big breakthrough that might break what’s on everybody else’s roadmap and change the entire solution space,” she said during the C4ISRNET Conference on April 20.
In microelectronics, DARPA is working to strengthen the domestic semiconductor industrial base through its Electronics Resurgence Initiative. The effort was started in 2017, and the agency has since invested about $2 billion in projects to increase information processing density, address throughput limits and reduce the cost of electronic design.
Tompkins said during a separate April 20 webinar hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association that this year’s budget is largely focused on launching a follow-on ERI effort, ERI 2.0. That includes $18 million for the Joint University Microelectronics Program, which is creating partnerships among academic institutions and the defense and semiconductor industries to overcome “grand technical challenges,” according to budget documents
It also includes $25 million for a program called Next-Generation Microelectronics Prototyping Designs, which is aimed at developing designs that can improve performance and reduce the size and cost of chips.
DARPA’s $414 million AI budget is mostly captured in its AI Next campaign, initiated in 2018 to ramp up funding for new and existing projects to automate DoD business processes, improve resiliency and security, reduce performance issues and develop next-generation algorithms and technology applications. The agency has invested about $2 billion through AI Next in the last four years.
Tompkins said the campaign has been successful and is close to ending, noting that almost half of DARPA’s 250 programs are developing or using AI in new ways.
“We don’t feel that the major top-down push is necessary anymore, given its ubiquity in a lot of our programs,” she said.
As the agency moves away from its AI Next campaign, it’s increasing investment in resilient supply chain logistics. DARPA has invested for years in securing supply chains, including efforts that allow the military services to manufacture products in the field. Tompkins said the plan is to expand that investment “across a much broader range of different materials and different components.”
DARPA’s Composable Logistics and Information Omniscience program, known as LogX, is one of those efforts. The agency is seeking $21.5 million for LogX to develop and demonstrate software that can support real-time logistics and supply chain diagnosis and prognostics.
“The software will integrate a range of technical innovations spanning human-machine interface spanning human-machine interface, dynamic data visualization and distributed/collaborative software design,” the document states.
DARPA’s biotech investments fall in the category of “foundational technology,” Tompkins said, noting that its $414 million portfolio is cuts across many of its more domain-centric programs. A new Biotechnology for Challenging Environments effort is one of those projects. The agency requested $11.8 million to develop “novel biological solutions” to support operations in remote and extreme conditions.
“As the DoD expands operations into previously inaccessible domains, new and unique logistical constraints imposed by extreme conditions and resource scarcity threaten force readiness,” budget documents state. “This program will develop technologies to enable new capabilities that harness microbes, biopolymers, and/or other bioprocesses to protect warfighters and maintain performance of warfighting platforms.”
DARPA’s Gene Editor Enabled Diagnostics and Biosurveillance program is exploring fieldable, low-cost capabilities to detect biological threats for the military and for broader public health needs. The fiscal 2023 request includes $18.9 million for the effort.
Other top investment areas in DARPA’s request include $184 million for cyber, $143 million for hypersonic technology, $90 million for quantum and $82 million for space.