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3/1/2012
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DARPA: Consumer Tech Can Aid Electronic Warfare

Common, inexpensive technologies are being used by foreign adversaries to build ‘military grade' systems, the Defense agency testifies.

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Consumer electronics are being used by foreign adversaries to create electronic warfare capabilities that go beyond those of the Department of Defense (DOD), a top official with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) testified before Congress.

Kaigham Gabriel, deputy director of DARPA, said in written testimony accompanying an appearance this week before the House Armed Services Committee, pointed to computing, imaging, communications, and sensors as among the areas that were once the exclusive domain of military systems, but which are now in the hands of "hundreds of millions of people." And he said the DOD no longer enjoys the "spectrum dominance" it once maintained.

"This is not an abstract vulnerability," Gabriel said, adding, "In both waveform complexity and carrier frequency, adversaries have moved to operating regimes currently beyond the capabilities of our systems."

There are three reasons why commercial electronics have become a viable way to establish electronic warfare capabilities, Gabriel said. One is that microelectronic devices are improving in performance as they go down in size. "Smaller microelectronic devices are able to switch faster and, thus, operate at higher frequencies," according to his testimony. "This means that specialized microelectronic devices produced for DOD are now matched or nearly matched in performance to standard silicon-based microelectronics commercially available from multiple, global sources."

[ The military will have its own app store. See Army Readies Mobile App Store. ]

The emergence of programmable chips and field-programmable gate arrays, which allow device components to be programmed after fabrication, make them faster to produce, according to Gabriel. And a global supply of devices means they are cheaper to obtain. "It is now possible to purchase commercial off-the-shelf components for more than 90 percent of the electronics needed for an electronic warfare system," he said.

The military is responding by applying some of the same commercial technologies in its own electronic warfare systems. And the agency aims to develop innovative technologies that go beyond what's commercially available. In addition, DARPA has awarded 32 contracts as part of its Cyber Fast Track program over the past seven months.

DARPA has several projects underway to take advantage of commercial "off the shelf" technologies, including smartphones. One project aims to create encryption technology to secure iPhones and Android-based devices for use at the DOD. Another takes a page from the mobile application development playbook by creating new sensor technology for drones and military vehicles.

InformationWeek's 2012 Government IT Innovators program will feature the most innovative government IT organizations in the 2012 InformationWeek 500 issue and on InformationWeek.com. Does your organization have what it takes? The nomination period for 2012 Government IT Innovators closes April 27.

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