What are DARPA's top national security priorities?

Complexity, technology, cost all play a critical role

Technology has changed a lot since 1958 when the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency was established, but the agency’s mission to retain technological superiority for the sake of national security has not; in today’s world, there are three main national security priorities, and the agency is always looking to partner with contractors to address them.

The first is complexity; the national security threat environment is vast, with many different adversaries in the mix. “It continues to be critically important to us as a country to understand and to be ready for whatever a North Korea might do, whatever an Iran might do, wherever China’s economic growth and development might take it,” said DARPA director Arati Prabhakar, speaking at the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s TITANS event on Tuesday.

However, it’s more complex than this alone; “At the same time, we all know that the daily national security threat that we face is much more about this network threat. Often, it’s linkages between nation-states and terrorism and all kinds of other illicit activities like money laundering, human trafficking, and we see that playing out across the world. It’s a dynamic, shape-shifting type of threat,” Prabhakar said.

These relationships aren’t new, but they are fueled today by a marketplace that makes it easier for those types of transactions to occur; so much so, in fact, that it has heightened this threat, making it a critical national security priority.

The second priority has to do with technology. Prabhakar spoke about a halcyon period of time where Americans enjoyed being at the lead of technological advancement, when the United States was ahead of other global players in terms of technical edge.

That’s now come and gone, according to Prabhakar. Extremely capable technologies, from advanced semi-conductor components to advanced networking capabilities, are all available in the global marketplace. The same goes for the ingredients of weapons of mass destruction. That means that our adversaries have access to them, as well.

“We can no longer proceed in our happy assumption that we can take our time figuring out what to do with all of these great technologies because [other players] are able to move very quickly. We simply have to change the pace at which we live in this technology environment,” Prabhakar said.

The third national priority has to do with cost; however, this isn’t the cost that is commonly associated with sequestration and budgets; rather, it’s the cost of building the national security capabilities that we have today.

“We have historically viewed as America’s wealth as a competitive advantage, and we have thought of our ability to make massive investments for national security systems as an edge that we have over our adversaries. I think that has worked, but I think that day has passed,” Prabhakar said.

“It is time for our innovation community to think about cost not in an incremental way. This isn’t about shaving a couple percentages off the cost; this is about fundamentally changing the cost equation, changing the way we build complex systems to collapse the cost. Let’s build systems that we can build for not too much that can impose phenomenal cost on our adversaries,” she said.


About the Author

Mark Hoover is a senior staff writer with Washington Technology. You can contact him at, or connect with him on Twitter at @mhooverWT.

Reader Comments

Wed, Nov 20, 2013 Don O'Neill

The top national security priorities should focus on establishing and maintaining infrastructure, being trusted, being competitive, and being austere.

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