"Our mission is unchanged -- to prevent and create technological surprise," DARPA director Arati Prabhakar said at a Pentagon briefing in which she presented a new framework for the agency's research and development. However, she added, "it's going to be a very challenging environment for an extended period of time."
The agency's primary strategic objectives are to demonstrate "breakthrough capabilities" for national security, help drive a highly capable U.S. technology base and ensure that DARPA itself delivers on its mission.
[ Perhaps teenagers can develop some of the new technologies that DARPA needs. Read Future Scientists Showcase Inventions At White House. ]
Three factors are driving that mission, according to Prabhakar. One is the emergence of new threats. Rather than addressing risks posed by adversarial countries alone, the military must be prepared to deal with criminal enterprises, terrorist organizations and ill-intentioned individuals, all of which have access to new kinds of weapons, including cyber threats.
A second factor is the rapid pace of technological change, especially in the area of components for military systems. Many tech components are no longer manufactured in the U.S., introducing an added element of risk to the military's systems and networks, Prabhakar said.
The third factor is financial. Sequestration has cut $202 million from DARPA's fiscal 2013 budget of $2.9 billion, resulting in furloughs of employees and an 8% budget cut across programs. Prabhakar cautioned that DARPA's ability to invest in R&D may not return to business as usual.
"There's a critical shift in how society allocates resources to national security," she said. "I'm not talking about sequestration. I'm really talking about fiscal pressures that could shape a different future."
To deal with the complexities of modern warfare, DARPA seeks to develop integrated and layered systems that can continue to give the military a decisive edge. Examples of technologies that could increase in potency when used in this way include "adaptive electronic warfare," manned and unmanned systems, tactical cyber capabilities, and advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
"Modern warfare may be too complex for a single new capability to deliver sustained superiority across a variety of scenarios," according to the document, titled "Driving Technological Surprise: DARPA's Mission In A Changing World."
The agency's investment strategy is to use advanced, commercially available technologies where possible while encouraging new development at universities, government labs and private sector companies, as well as through its own programs.
Cyber is an area of increased focus. "We all view cyber as a critical threat to our military, and national security more broadly," Prabhakar said. "It's a tool that can be part of our military suite of capabilities."
DARPA's so-called Plan X program is aimed at developing capabilities that will give the U.S. military an advantage in cyber warfare, but there will be no single weapon or capability that does that, Prabhakar said.