WASHINGTON -- DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is best known as part of the US response to Sputnik in the 1950s that developed the basic architecture of today's Internet -- Arpanet. Since the 1980s, the research agency was also an early promoter of key semiconductor technologies like FinFETs and widely used 193-nm lithography. The origins of several key components found in today smartphones can be traced directly to DARPA chip technology investments.
The agency's Microelectronics Technology Office (MTO), the source of much chip innovation over the past two decades, is now at the forefront of efforts to solve nagging cost and complexity issues that plague many modern weapon systems. See, for example, the F-35 fighter, which was recently grounded after a June 23 engine fire. (The grounding has since been lifted.) The F-35 is the most expensive weapon system in history, with a unit cost estimated at $135 million, according to a March 2014 Government Accounting Office report.
The F-35 fighter, at an estimated $135 million a pop, has become the poster child for US weapons' complexity and cost.
During the Cold War, the US possessed the deep pockets to build complex, monolithic systems without regard to cost. That strategy "is now killing us," concedes DARPA Director Arati Prabhaker, who founded MTO during her first stint at the agency during the Clinton administration. "It's a self-inflicted wound."
Prabhaker sees MTO playing a key role in moving the military away from "point sources of vulnerability" like such centralized, monolithic systems as the GPS. These large systems also resist upgrades, even as the pace of technological development speeds up.
The Pentagon must "break this monolithic, high-cost, slow-moving, inflexible approach that we have," she added during a technology exposition for potential contractors a few blocks from the Pentagon on July 18. She sees MTO playing a key role in creating the agile underlying technologies needed for future weapons, satellites, and networks.
Despite its new mission, MTO also finds itself searching for a new role as the emphasis on "microsystems" shifts steadily from hardware to software. Again, that shift has resulted in greater cost and complexity for weapon systems, and DARPA officials say that remains a key challenge for the agency in the coming era of declining military spending.
William Chappell, the new MTO director, is on loan from the electrical engineering department at Purdue University. After several MTO programs were shifted in April to a new Biological Technologies Office, he concedes that funding for MTO efforts is now "flat." (The agency does not break out budget totals for individual technology offices, a spokesman says.)