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DARPA’s Director Outlines the Agency’s Future Programs

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The work at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is about the future, based on a mission of breakthrough technologies and capabilities for national security, the DARPA director said March 14.

Speaking at the McAleese and Associates and Credit Suisse 10th annual Defense Programs Conference on maximizing value and minimizing risk, Steven H. Walker gave examples of DARPA’s newest initiatives.

He began his remarks with DARPA’s four imperatives:

— Defending the nation against existential threats;

— Deter and prevail against near-peer adversaries;

— Even though the world is moving toward great-power competition, DARPA has spent 20-plus years working on counter insurgency and counterterrorism; and

— Continue to do what DARPA has always done well: Build a foundational technology that allows all of those missions to be completed and win the technology races the U.S. has to win in the 21st century.

Key DARPA Programs

Walker outlined a few of the more than 250 ongoing programs at DARPA, including cyber deterrence, which he said is a key capability for defending the nation. “Many people have had personal information stolen; our cyber physical systems — ships, tanks, networks and airplanes — are also at risk,” he said.

Another key capability in defending the U.S. from existential threats is countering hypersonic weapons in development in China, Russia and elsewhere, Walker said.

“It’s been widely reported in the press that our adversaries and peer competitors — China and Russia and others — are developing capabilities, so what we’re doing at DARPA is hypersonics weapon programs with the Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a glider that can be air-launched from several different Air Force platforms,” he explained, “It has long-range capability. We hope to fly the first one by the end of this calendar year.”

The tactical-boost guide program also is providing a front-end capability for a joint program DARPA stood up with the Army, which is looking at a land-based hypersonics long standoff precision fighter capability, Walker said.

“That will fly in a couple more years, but TBG is supplying the front end for that vehicle,” he added. DARPA also is working with the Army to develop new boosters for more controllability, and for the Army to have the capability to pursue hypersonics.

Artificial Intelligence

“We’re also planning to bring AI into the game and have this constellation be able to focus based on passing data from one satellite to the next on various missions and we’ll see if it works,” Walker said. “It’s a demonstration. And that’s what DARPA is in the business to do.”

And how does DARPA become better with counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations?

“One capability we’re interested in is countering gray warfare — and gray warfare, even from peer states, or nation states — is becoming a bigger issue,” he said, referring to nontraditional conflicts that involve aggressive acts with ambiguous objectives, sometimes unknown aggressors and unclear violations of norms. The role of the military to defend nations from these acts is often uncertain.

“How do we as a free society counter these gray war activities, as we saw in the Ukraine, and in some other regions of the world?” Walker asked.

AI Next

The final big initiative Walker discussed was DARPA’s “AI Next” campaign, announced in September.

“DARPA’s been funding AI for 56 of its 61 years,” he said. “We have done the early investments that developed rules-based AI, the early investments that wound up in self-driving cars, second-generation machine learning, and the stuff the commercial world is using now, [such as] language translation.”

DARPA is heading toward what Walker called third-wave AI — determining how to get machines more contextual reasoning ability and the ability to work with a human as a partner.

He explained it as a program that’s looking at how a machine explains to a human how it came up with an answer. “That’s going to be really important for warfighters using AI in the field,” Walker said.

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