WASHINGTON — Biotechnology, undersea systems and big data are among the areas that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has identified as key to moving America's technology forward, according to a new report released today.

The agency's bi-annual "Breakthrough Technologies for National Security" report acts both as an analysis of recent DARPA work and a guide for what areas the agency expects to invest in over the coming years.

Timed to coincide with today's testimony on the Hill by DARPA director Arati Prabhakar, the report concludes that while the US remains a leader in many technological areas, other nations continue to close that gap. Not helping that situation is the simple truth that the US has been forced to focus on the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Prabhakar pointed to things like the Defense Innovation Initiative, more commonly known as the "third offset," as a result of the Pentagon working to quickly take stock in a changed world.

"All of those are signs of a dDefense dDepartment that is taking a fresh look at the world, realizing we need to take that fresh look again after this intense period of a very particular focus on two ground wars," she said. "I think that's a very healthy and encouraging sign."

For DARPA, that new look is manifesting itself in some internal inspection on how to speed up processes to keep pace with rapid of innovation around the globe, both inside and outside the defense sector, said Steven Walker, deputy director for the agency.

"The pace at which we can develop and field new military systems is really important for who wins the next war," Walker said. "We're focused here at DARPA on rethinking how we develop new military systems. Some of our systems today are extremely capable, the most capable in the world, but they are very complex, they're costly and they take a long time to develop and field. So at DARPA we're spending a lot of time rethinking how we might develop these systems."

Overall, there are eight general topics that DARPA is attempting to rethink: dominance in the electromagnetic spectrum, improving weapons that can operate in a GPS-denied environment, maintaining air superiority in contested environments, continuing development on hypersonics, cheaper launch solutions for space assets, maritime agility, new ground vehicles and counter-terrorism technologies.

While DARPA is putting pressure on itself to help make the Pentagon more responsive, Prabhakar expressed confidence that the US could remain in front of near-peer nations if it continues to invest in new technology development.

"I really like our chances," Prabhakar said. "US technological capability is still phenomenal. It's just that we're not alone anymore. We're not the only ones that have this huge capability."

One longer-term concept is investing in biological technology.

"It's been a vision in the scientific community, for a number of year, that as we learn to genetically engineer microorganisms [we] can boost their metabolisms for things that they already know how to do," Prabhakar said. "We can change the chemistries of the material that they produce."

In military terms, that could lead to the development of new materials with characteristics beyond what current materials can provide. Prabhakar envisions a material able to stave off the natural corrosion the Navy suffers from when it puts boats in the water, or another material with a high energy density for help with propulsion. And, she added, there would be major benefits for healthcare.

While promising, Prabhakar warned that it is still "very slow and costly" to change even a single microorganism slightly.

In the realm of slightly more conventional weaponry is DARPA's Upwards Falling Payloads program, which is essentially an undersea fixed launch position which could potentially be used to send payloads towards the surface at a moment's notice.

"Today the US Navy puts capability on the ocean floor using very capable, but fairly expensive submarine platforms," Walker explained. "We'd like to do with this program is pre-position capability on the ocean floor and have it be available to be triggered real time when needed."

The program, which begins underwater testing this year, has a number of challenges, including the very fundamental one of how to protect the payloads resting on the ocean floor for more than a year at a time. Because of the logistical challenges, Walker said, the payoff for the program could be extreme.

"If we're successful in this program, we're going to show what's possible here, but we'll also be showing what's possible in terms of a distributed architecture across the ocean," he said. Those lessons would then be rolled into other potential dispersed naval architectures.

And in some ways, DARPA is struggling to get its head around the same issues that plague the rest of the Pentagon: cyber security and "big data."

The report notes that by 2020, estimates are there will be nearly ten times the current volume of data. Because of that, Prabhakar said, her agency is trying to tackle the issue of data head on. Some of those efforts have already borne fruit, with search tools that allow the user to probe the "deep web" which is not tracked by commercial search engines like Google.

That capability is currently being used to track the web activity of the Islamic State group, better known as ISIS, she noted.

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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