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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar April 25, 2013

Press Briefing with DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar from the Pentagon

STAFF: Thanks for joining us for today's briefing.

This afternoon we have with us Dr. Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA. Dr. Prabhakar was appointed as DARPA director in July 2012, but this is not her first time at DARPA. She served as a program manager for several years, beginning in 1986 when she founded DARPA's microelectronic technology office.

Dr. Prabhakar has spent her career at DARPA, and elsewhere, investing in world-class technologies -- pardon me -- world-class engineers and scientists to create new technologies and businesses.

Thank you for being here this afternoon, Dr. Prabhakar. I'll turn it over to you for some remarks before we take your questions.


Good afternoon, everyone. It's really great to be here with you today.

Many of you have seen or covered our leading edge technologies and projects from DARPA. What I want to do today is add to that a bigger picture of what our agency does for the nation, how we do it, how we're thinking about our mission in the context of today's realities and the future that we're building ahead. And I'll just speak for a few minutes, and then I'll be very happy to take your questions at the end.

Let me start at the very beginning. As I think many of you know, DARPA was created in 1958 in response to the surprise of Sputnik being launched. Even then, at that time, as now, we all understood that technology is the cornerstone of our national security. So in 1958 we understood that we needed a way to make sure we didn't have that kind of technological surprise again.

And in the 55 years since then, DARPA has prevented technological surprise by creating surprise of our own. And today, if you look at how we fight, you will find in our military capabilities really critical systems and capabilities like precision guidance and navigation, like stealth technologies, like UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], communications and networking, night vision system.

And our warfighters have taken this suite of capabilities and turned it into a way to change the face of war, to really give us an -- an unbeatable advantage.

Now, all of those systems and capabilities became real through the efforts of a large number of people and organizations. It took people in companies and university researchers, lots of organizations across the military services, and, of course, ultimately it took our warfighters taking those technologies and turning them into real military capability.

But DARPA's role in each of those cases was to make the pivotal early investments that changed what was possible. And in doing that we allowed for these big steps forward in capability. That's really our role. That's what our function is. That's what we've done for many generations and that's what we're going to be doing again for the next generation. And I want to talk about what that next generation looks like. But before I get to that, I want to talk for a moment about how we're able to do this at DARPA. We're a small agency. Today we're about 200 government employees. We've always been a fairly small organization. Our budget has been a consistent but fairly small portion of what the department invests in research and development.

So how did this small entity have this kind of off-scale outsize impact? That -- the answer to that question also traces back to our core mission, which has been the same for 55 years. Recognizing that we had to think outside the box and to function in some different ways in order to do our job. A core operating principle at DARPA for -- throughout our history-- has been to bring in stellar program managers, people who come for a finite term of about three to five years typically, and to use these programs managers to tap into, to connect to the broad technical community. And that's really where our projects get done.

The program managers themselves come from across the technical community, so our program managers today come from universities, from companies -- large companies, small companies, defense contractors, commercial companies. Some of them come out of other parts of government. Some of them are active duty military members today.

What they do when they come to DARPA begins by listening to what is happening in the technical community, where the breakthrough opportunities might be. It comes from listening to what people in the military services see as our future needs what the current tradeoffs are.

And from all of those inputs, our program managers create DARPA programs that they think really have the potential to change the world. And then when they start building these programs, of course, they build these new technology capabilities, it's -- I think it's worth noting that they also build the technical communities that really can move our abilities forward in a really powerful way.

When these programs start delivering results and we start seeing new possibilities as a consequence, then the other thing that our program managers do is that they follow through on that work and they build the relationships that help our projects and our programs transition so that we can start down this path toward what we hope will ultimately be a revolutionary new capability.

So those program managers who are the core of our agency are about half of the staff at DARPA. The job for the rest of us is to recruit these stellar individuals, to construct a balanced portfolio of programs from the ideas that they generate, and ultimately -- you know, I think of the core of my job really being to enable these program managers to take the kind of risk that is inherent in reaching for high payoff. And -- and all of that is really what keeps the DARPA engine humming.

Just on a personal note, it was noted that I had returned to DARPA last summer after 19 years. Most of that time was in the commercial sector, about 15 years of it in Silicon Valley. And my greatest delight when I came back to DARPA was to find that after all those years it was still a place where people are running to work in the morning because they know they're on a mission that really matters and because they know that they can do something about it, that they can accomplish something big in a short period of time.

And, you know, that is the essential ingredient that makes DARPA a very highly functional and effective agency.

So that's a little bit of a peek under the hood at how we do what we do. Let me talk about what we're doing today. Our mission is unchanged in 55 years. It has been, and will be, to prevent and to create technological suprise. But, of course, the world in which we do that has changed many times since 1958, and it continues to change, the technology environment in which we're operating changes.

And so in 2013, we thought it was a -- a particularly important time as we finish this period over a decade of two wars, it's a particularly important time for DARPA to step back to look ahead at -- at the years and the decades ahead and to give some real thought and then be very clear about how we interpret that mission in the context of today's realities.

That's what our framework document is about. I think everyone here has had a chance to look at it. It's available. It'll be available on our websites shortly after this press conference as well.

Just to synopsize what is in there, let me mention three major trends that we think are critical in shaping our environment, the DARPA environment, which is the years and the decades ahead, the -- the time period for which we're trying to build radical new solutions.

The first major factor that we see is, we believe we're going to be in an extended period during which our national security will face a wide range of different types of threats from a wide range of different actors--nation-states are in the mix, but so too are terrorist organizations and criminal organizations and even individuals. And each of these -- all of these different kinds of actors have -- of course they have the conventional means of waging war, or inflicting damage, but now they also have some new tools. Cyber is a very obvious example. Many of these actors also have increasing access to weapons of mass destructions, or weapons of mass terror. So the number one major factor that we really pay attention to is this -- this complex, fluid, shifting national security environment that we think we will be facing for an extended period of time.

Number two, when we consider the technology dimension here, too, the world has changed in some important ways, and already today our military systems are critically reliant on technologies that in some cases are available to everybody around the world, in some cases are actually not even made anymore in the United States. That's a trend that we expect will continue and in particular we think that other nations will continue to grow their capabilities in terms of technology and new research and development. I think that's going to be a fact of life in the world that we're living in.

A third factor has to do with fiscal constraints. We believe we may be at the beginning of a fundamental shift in how our society allocates resources to the business of national security. And I'm not talking today about the immediate issues around sequestration-- like everyone else that has an impact on our agency, on our work, and on our people. It's an across the board cut that affects us equally with the rest of the department and other parts of government. But, what I'm really talking about here are the fiscal pressures that could shape a different future over the coming years and decades and if it turns out to be the case that we don't allocate this continuing level of support for national security as a society it actually won't change the act that our job will still be to keep the country as safe and secure as is humanely possible, despite that.

So these three factors create a very challenging environment that we're going to be facing for an extended period of time looking forward. I -- I think these are factors that create an environment that calls for a DARPA and for the DARPA approaches to thinking outside the box more than ever before.

Our framework document also talks about what we're doing and how we're approaching our business and -- given this environment. First and foremost, we are continuing to invest in game changers, in radical new systems concepts, in radical new technologies that can enable new capabilities, that's something that DARPA has done for 55 years, and we're going to do it today, and we'll hope we'll do it for the next 55 years at least. It's core to what we always will do.

Today we're also adding to that some new approaches to the mix. And a couple of them have to do with adaptability and cost, thinking about the complexity of the environment we're that going to face, we're thinking about how we can make the systems of the future more readily adaptable so that they can be configured for whatever actual threat emerges in time, or can be reconfigured in real time in an engagement so that we can adapt more quickly than adversaries might in a battle environment.

We're seeking, as well, ideas that can invert the cost equation, ways to use innovation not just to nibble at the cost of systems, but really to fundamentally change the cost equation and to inflict much more costs on our adversaries to respond to the solutions that we come up with.

And then, finally, we're also thinking about the fact that DARPA's in the silver bullet business, but in fact, even our most powerful capability will not single-handedly change the face of war for the next generation.

That is possible, however, if we think about how to layer technologies together, and that's how I think we've created the last big shift in military capability, and we see how that could be possible looking forward as we think about how we maintain air superiority for example for the next generation, or how we think about new ways of countering WMD threats. That combination of technologies I think will be very, very critical.

So those are a few thoughts about how we're pursuing our mission today. Let me wrap up by coming back to our core objective. DARPA's objective is a new generation of technology for national security. So what might that military capability of the future look like?

Today, we're building a future in which our warfighters can use cyber tools as tactical weapons that are fully integrated in the kinetic fight, and we're building a new generation of electronic warfare that will leapfrog what others around the world are doing in globally available technology.

We're also building a new suite of technologies for position navigation and timing so that our people and our platforms won't continue to be dangerously reliant on GPS, as they are today.

If you look across our programs, we're also building new approaches to space and to robotics, to advanced platforms, advanced weapon systems and beneath all of that we're building a new foundation of emerging technologies in software and electronics and materials, but also today, new technologies that emerge from the biological sciences.

And if -- if we're successful, as I think we really must be in this DARPA endeavor, what that will mean for the future is that our future leaders and commanders will have real options, powerful options for all the range of threats that we face in the years and decades ahead. That's really how we will enable our nation to achieve its strategic objectives in a decisive fashion.

So that's what we're trying to do at DARPA today. I hope I've given you a little bit of a view on what we do and how we do it, a little sense of how we're thinking about our mission in the context of a complex world that we're living in today and finally a sense of what that future might look like.

I'd be very happy to take your questions.

STAFF: If you'd please identify yourself by name and outlet as you ask your questions.

Luis go ahead.

Q: Ma'am you mentioned sequestration there. I believe you've taken a $202 million dollar hit as a result of sequestration. Is this an across the board cut in every program, every research project that you're doing?

And how -- how does that impact projects that are nearing completion?

DR. PRABHAKAR: Yeah, so you're right, our sequestration cut had -- first of all it had two effects at DARPA. One was, about an 8 percent cut by program element across the agency. And, secondly, our employees will participate in the department-wide furloughs that are under discussion still.

At the program level, what that meant is, we have about a dozen major program elements and -- and each of those had to take this across-the-board cut. We've done our best to prioritize within each of those buckets, to take those cuts where they would have the least impact.

Because we're a projects agency, we are always prioritizing. And -- and so this -- you know, the first things that got cut were the things that we thought were the least likely to have impact to begin with, but with cuts of that magnitude, especially taken halfway through the fiscal year, of course we have had to make cuts and delays in contracts and grants that we think are core to what we're trying to do.

So, you know, it's not a death blow when you take a one time cut like that. It's quite corrosive. And, I'm -- I -- you know, something that over time would certainly erode our ability to do our mission.

Q: Spencer Ackerman with Wired.

Can you talk about why you're transitioning the Nexus 7 data environment to the DEA? Developed, as it was, for Afghanistan, it has, you know, quite a different suite of applications the DEA will face.

What's the value-add that you see it providing?

DR. PRABHAKAR: So Nexus 7 is a program that we've had over the last few years to bring big data analytics tools to bear, to try to make sense out of vast amounts of heterogeneous data that are collected from lots of different sources and in the battleground environment.

Over time -- and it's been a very successful program in terms of the insights that it's been able to provide to our commanders on the ground. And over time we certainly anticipate a host of transitions of those kinds of activities.

It's also, actually, the basis of some further work that we're doing in the XDATA program that I think will take what we've learned from one environment and one set of applications and broaden what we're able to do in big data. I think it's gonna end up being a very critical enabling technology for a lot of applications over time.

Q: But why DEA?

DR. PRABHAKAR: We can talk in more detail about what the specific transitions look like for that program. I'm happy to get you in touch with the folks that are doing that.

STAFF: Your name and outlet please?

Q: Dion Nissenbaum from the Wall Street Journal.

I wondered if you could talk just a little bit more about the cyber -- I think you testified last week that Plan X was gonna be delayed five months. And -- and do you, in fact, see that there could be an offensive silver bullet coming forward?

DR. PRABHAKAR: First of all, the delay in Plan X, which is our cyber-offense research program, is a great example of the negative effects of sequestration, something that we found very unfortunate.

Let me back up and try to give you a picture of what we're trying to accomplish with cyber overall. First of all, in cyber, as in other areas, DARPA does not have an operational responsibility. So we are not the people in the trenches dealing with the -- the problems that we face today.

What we're trying to do in cyber is to change the trajectory of our response.

Fundamentally, what we're trying to do -- today I think we all view cyber as a critical threat militarily and to our national security more broadly.

We see a future where cyber becomes an important capability. And inherent in that is the notion that cyber-security is something that -- that is manageable, that we have under control.

But beyond that it's a tool that can be part of our military suite of capabilities. And that of the activity, our work on cyber offense, Plan X is a program that is specifically working toward building really the technology infrastructure that would allow cyber offense to move from the world we're in today, where it's a fine, handcrafted capability that requires exquisite authorities to do anything with it, that when you launch it into the world, you hope that it's going to do what you think it's gonna do, but you don't really know.

We need to move from there to a future where cyber is a capability like other weapons capabilities, meaning that a military operator can design and deploy a cyber effect, know what it's going to accomplish, do battle damage assessment and measure what it has accomplished, and, with that, build in the graduated authorities that allow an appropriate individual to -- to take an appropriate level of action.

So that's the vision we've got. There's a lot of hard technology build to get from here to there, but I think that's a -- I think that's going to be a huge game changer, when we get there.

Q: Do you think there's a silver bullet down the road?

DR. PRABHAKAR: Well, you know, I almost never think there's a silver bullet. But, in fact, I think when you layer lots of these capabilities together -- so, for example, if we could figure out how to do battle damage assessment, that would be fantastic. But that's not enough. You really -- it's almost always this kind of systems capability.

But when you cobble all of that together, I think it will be extraordinarily powerful.

Q: Hi, ma'am. Dave Majumdar from Flight International.

The air dominance initiative. You testified last week -- you testified on this a couple days ago. But what exactly are you guys doing with that program?

I mean, is this similar to like how JASP developed into the F-35? Is that kind of the aim over here?

And then, also Frank Kendall, I guess in October last year he mentioned a new X-Plane program for a new attack helicopter. Has that gone anywhere?

DR. PRABHAKAR: I'm not sure I know the answer to the second question. But let me try to tell you what we're doing with air dominance.

Our air dominance initiative is currently a study stage effort. It grew out of some conversations that Frank Kendall and I had, shortly after I arrived here. I mentioned my view that there really isn't going to be a silver bullet technology that, you know, for example extends air superiority into the next three or four decades.

Frank Kendall I think also had a strong view that, first, that it's very important for us to create this generational shift in capability, recognizing that the future -- you know, the threats we're gonna face in the future are likely to be much more sophisticated than what we've seen in the last decade or so, and then, coupled with that, a concern about, given a period of defense spending downturn, how were we going to make sure that we continued to have the innovation capacity in this country to be ready for whatever needed to come next?

So out of those conversations came the notion of taking a look at air dominance and asking the question about how we could create this generational shift and how we could extend our air superiority capability.

We've chosen, very deliberately, we've chosen to take a systems approach and to ask that question -- you know, this not a question about what does the next aircraft look like? This is a question about what are -- what are all the capabilities that it will take, layered together, in order to -- to really comprehensively extend air superiority.

We're doing this project, this study project, in conjunction with the Air Force and the Navy. And it's been a very high-energy effort over the last few months. We've got a terrific team of eight DARPA program managers across a wide variety of areas, matched with Air Force and Navy experts working their next-generation look at a number of technology areas.

And just to give you a sample, those areas span networking and communications, control of the electromagnetic spectrum, and sensing across the electromagnetic spectrum. We're talking about how manned and unmanned systems might work together, what role space assets play, et cetera, on that.

So, very early, but we're seeing -- we're brewing some interesting ideas.

Q: When do you think you'll see some results?

DR. PRABHAKAR: Well, at this point, we're just a few months into a study. What I hope will come out of this will be some initiatives for the next budget cycle.

Q: Thank you all.

Q: Yeah, Lalit Jha from Press Trust of India.

Given the backdrop of which DARPA was established, which country do you think is in a position, could be in position to give you a surprise?


DR. PRABHAKAR: Well -- yeah, I think -- I mean, first of all, if it happens, it'll be a surprise. That's the definition of your question.

One of the interesting things today I think is that we do face a world in which the actors that can -- that can put us into deeply uncomfortable positions are not limited to nations. And I think that adds to the complexity of what we're facing.

We've seen that with terrorism concerns around the world. We've seen that, you know, with -- with the actions in some cases of just a few individuals.

So I'm not sure it's limited to nations. And I -- and I think that that in itself, might be part of the surprise that we're facing.

In that sense, I think we're in a very different environment than 1958. Even when I first came to DARPA in 1986, we were still -- you know, now we know that we were close to the end of the Cold War. But in 1986, we didn't know it was that close, and it -- and in that environment, we still, even though the world was quite complex, what we thought about was this one monolithic overwhelming existential threat to the United States.

So -- so in that sense, I think our scenarios that we think about today are much more diverse.

Q: This is Tejinder Singh from India America Today.

I have been hearing a lot about this GPS and reliability and everything. Do we have a time period when we are or have we already got?

And the second question is you said that we are preventing the surprises by creating our own surprises. Can you list any of the surprises that you have created? And…

DR. PRABHAKAR: Yes, absolutely. Let me start with the second question.

Yeah, and actually, my first example will tie directly to your question about GPS.

You know, in the '80s, when GPS satellites started becoming widely deployed, at that time we had GPS capability, but it meant carrying an enormous box around on your vehicle or in your ship. Eventually, it got small enough that it was a heavy pack that you carried.

But, you know, it still really was not the kind of omnipresent capability that it is today.

So how it got from there to the point that it's embedded not just in, you know, all of our platforms, but in all of our weapons and -- in many of our weapons and on -- you know, the -- it's small enough now that our warfighters carry it with them. In fact, it's small enough that we all carry it with us on our cellphones.

That process of shrinking GPS to the point that it was that easy to pack into lots of things really began with a program at DARPA in -- that started in the '80s to miniaturize GPS receivers.

And I think that's a great example of a surprise. People thought of it as sort of this exquisite capability that a few people would have access to, but it's transformational when every platform and every person can have that kind of position and navigation timing capability.

So, then, chapter two is sometimes we create a capability that is so powerful that -- that we become -- our reliance on it in itself becomes a vulnerability. And I think that is where we are today with GPS. And -- and the work that we've been doing over the last few years at DARPA is to create a next generation of position navigation and timing. It will not be a monolithic new solution. It will be a series of technologies to -- to track time and position and to fix time and position from external sources, which, again, layered together will provide for platforms and I think eventually for individuals, first, a kind of capability that allows us to no longer rely on GPS. But then, even more interesting, actually enables some -- a new generation of capabilities when electronically we're able to synchronize at that kind of timescale.

Q: Camille Elhassani from Al Jazeera English Television.

I'm wondered if you could talk a little bit more about how you guys are developing technologies to -- to counter non- state actors? I mean, I know you said that the technology is available to a lot of people now, and that's one of the trends that you're seeing. So what -- what can we look at down the pipeline that will counter some of these smaller individual threats?

DR. PRABHAKAR: Yeah, I think that's a particularly challenging question. And I think, again, what you'll see is ideas that bring together many different dimensions of technology. So just as a simple example is we're thinking -- this is not at this time an active DARPA program -- but one of the areas where we taking a fresh look, is the potential for making a big step forward in our capability for countering weapons of mass destruction.

So, that's an area where, for example, for a potential nuclear threat, what we're able to sense is, that's a challenge. We have some limited capabilities, but it's very hard to take those capabilities and create a complete secure system around a large area.

But we think potentially that if we combine some of those ideas with new sensing technologies, but also with new ways of managing big data and developing new big data analytics techniques, the combination may allow us to have a much more sophisticated way of going after what start off as very diffuse threats, potentially driven not by states, but by -- by smaller groups or individuals.

Q: Zach Biggs, Defense News.

You mentioned some of the fiscal constraints. Given that at times DARPA's programs can be difficult to explain, are you concerned that the agency may face disproportionate cuts in the future? And is part of this framework an outlining some of the projects an effort to demonstrate the value of the agency?

DR. PRABHAKAR: Well, my job as agency leader is always to try to demonstrate our value. But first, the answer to your second question is, you know, nothing that we do at DARPA inside of our own four walls is what moves the needle. What moves the needle is when we can engage with a very broad community of performers, but also supporters -- our leadership in the Pentagon, in the administration, and people in Congress.

So, yes, part of our job is to continue to explain the role that we play in this world. I think if you look historically, you will find that in fact DARPA -- part of the reason for our success has been extended periods, many, many decades during which there has been strong support for DARPA and its mission in Republican administrations and in Democratic administrations, in times when budgets were tight, in times when budgets were not so tight.

And I think it is because there is a -- I'm really thrilled, in fact, that there's a strong and clear understanding broadly about how important it is that we take a slice of our investment and make these bets on ideas that could be transformative, that could really give us some big steps forward in capability.

So, I actually think in the complex world that we're living in today, we need what DARPA does more than ever. And I think that, you know, if you look at the support that we get in the department and on Capitol Hill, I think it certainly reflects that.

Q: Joe Marks from Government Executive magazine.

I hoping you will talk more about challenges and competitions that DARPA will doing going forward, and whether that's been affected by sequestration.

DR. PRABHAKAR: Particularly the use of prizes and challenges, right? Yeah, that's the -- that's been a new mechanism for us to engage with the community. That's new since I left -- lots of new in the 19 years that I was gone. And I think it's been a very interesting addition to the mix of what we do.

Sequestration affects our budget. We -- it doesn't speak to the mechanisms by which we operate. And so we'll continue to look at prizes and those kinds of challenges as, you know, when that's the best way to get our job done, we'll continue to use those mechanisms.

Q: And prizes?

DR. PRABHAKAR: We have some very interesting stuff in the pipeline. Stay tuned.


Q: Thank you, for the last one.

Madam, my name is Rhagubir Goyal from India Global.

I have two questions. One, India is the hub of I.T., if not technology. If your agency had any cooperation with the Indian industries or India?

And second, China has been stealing your technology day by day, every day, or so many times, though some has been caught and some not. So what are you doing about this Chinese stealing and also any cooperation with India? Thank you.

DR. PRABHAKAR: You know, what's happening in India to me is part of this much broader globalization of both technology and technical capability, which I think is great for the world and poses some interesting challenges for the United States.

It also poses some great opportunities. And part of what we think about that at DARPA is -- is for each of our programs to think about where the best creative assets are around the planet for the objectives that we have. We do a very small amount, at this point, of work that happens outside the United States, usually because we found some unique capability that we think is particularly valuable. And we'll continue to look as we go into new areas.

Q: And China?

DR. PRABHAKAR: You know, to me that's a part of the cyber topic that we've been talking about more broadly. And today, we are in an environment where, broadly across defense and more broadly in the country, we do face a host of cyber threats. DARPA's role is to really get us on a different path. And I actually think, although, you know, when you listen to the problems, it's sort of hard to imagine a future where we can get cybersecurity under control.

I actually think that is possible. It's not going to happen overnight, but it's something that I think we can really make a big contribution to.

Q: And finally a question on India…

STAFF: I think that's all we have time for. Thank you.

DR. PRABHAKAR: Thanks, everyone.

STAFF: That concludes today's briefing.

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