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Increase DARPA’s funding — and then make sure its projects reach the battlefield

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Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has announced that he will introduce an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act that would double the funding of the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from $3.5 billion to $7 billion for each of the next five fiscal years. His amendment is significant because the act is one of the few pieces of legislation to win bipartisan support in the bitterly divided Congress. 

Sasse argues that, whereas the National Science Foundation (NSF) would receive $100 billion over five years under the act, the research that the NSF would generate is not guaranteed to be relevant to defense operations. On the other hand, DARPA’s entire purpose is to develop capabilities that specifically meet the warfighter’s needs. As Sasse asserts, “If we want American democracy to outlast Chinese techno-authoritarianism, we can make this investment.”

While it is widely recognized that the commercial sector has taken the lead in many areas of high technology — for example, in developing artificial intelligence — DARPA continues to support a stable of innovative, motivated scientists and engineers who are attuned to the military’s needs. Their work, unlike that of their commercial counterparts, is devoted solely to breakthroughs in defense-related technologies. Nevertheless, Sasse may find that winning support for his amendment may prove to be an uphill battle, given the antipathy that many so-called progressive Democrats have for defense spending in general.

Increasing DARPA’s funding will not necessarily guarantee any real improvement in the military’s capabilities on the battlefield, however. Some projects can languish in DARPA because the service departments, who have the responsibility to maintain and equip the forces in the field, may not be willing to spend the necessary sums that would enable DARPA projects to transition into the “program of records formal acquisition cycle.” In such cases, the services will only enable the programs to see the light of day if they are pressed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Indeed, lack of funds, even relatively small levels of funding, can prevent critical weapons from reaching the warfighter. I recall that during the fall of 2001, when Operation Enduring Freedom was in its initial stages, I was approached by Ron Sega, then serving as assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, regarding DARPA’s development of a thermobaric weapon. The weapon was an explosive that drew oxygen from the air to generate a high temperature explosion. Sega said that if fired into a cave, the weapon would incinerate whoever might be hiding within, such as al Qaeda terrorists or their Taliban enablers. 

Sega volunteered that the weapon had been available for some time but had never received sufficient funding to support its acquisition. The funding in question was but a few tens of millions of dollars — essentially a drop in the Pentagon’s $450 billion bucket. I agreed that DARPA should receive the funds, and within a few months the military was employing the weapon on the ground in Afghanistan. Evidently, until Sega made his request, the services had not considered the weapon to be of sufficient importance to justify funding its acquisition.

It is imperative, therefore, that not only should Congress fund DARPA to the levels that Sasse proposes but that its defense oversight committees should ensure that promising DARPA projects receive whatever funding is necessary to make sure they reach the warfighter — whether that be for employment on land, air, sea, space or in the cyber realm. 

DARPA long has been a national treasure, the source for key breakthroughs such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the internet. It not only should be funded, but its programs should be put to the best use possible so that, as Sasse envisions, the technology that American democracy generates will continue to outpace whatever Chinese autocracy can produce.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Ben Sasse DARPA Department of Defense Research

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