So, while the Senate Armed Services Committee generally has been very supportive of the idea that there’s much value to the nation and the Department of Defense in a DARPA that funds long-term, risky research, the House Armed Services Committee hasn’t been quite so enamored with that position. In the committee report accompanying the House version of the FY 2006 Defense Authorization Act (HR 1815) that passed the House yesterday, the committee lays out its short-term vision for the agency:
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been a leader and innovator in basic scientific research and defense science and technology for decades. Originally chartered to prevent technological surprise, DARPA promotes revolutionary technology innovations by focusing on high-risk, high-payoff technologies that offer new military capabilities and complement the military departments’ nearer-term science and technology programs. The committee has supported ever increasing funding for DARPA as the only agency not tied to a military service mission and the demands of a service budget to produce quick results. Recognizing that some of DARPA’s high-risk programs may not be successful, the committee encourages DARPA to continue its focus on the development, demonstration, and transition of high-risk, high-payoff technology to the military departments and to U.S. industry.
At the same time, the committee recognizes that the pursuit of the more futuristic technologies must be tempered by the hard fact that we are a nation at war and our armed forces have immediate needs for innovative technical solutions across a variety of disciplines. The committee commends DARPA on its quick reaction support and fielding of advanced innovative technologies to meet emerging critical operational needs of our forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom and elsewhere in support of the global war on terrorism.
The committee believes DARPA should continue to redirect some of its more futuristic efforts to the solution of today’s combat problems. Those immediate needs involving detection, sensing, protection, surveillance, and a host of other issues that may well be `DARPA hard’ problems that the Agency should be examining, rather than some of the more futuristic efforts in the DARPA program. Therefore, although the committee is pleased with the overall progress in the defense science and technology program, the committee believes that increased priority must continue to be given to the nearer-term requirements of the combatant commanders and U.S. armed forces in the field.
As we, and others, have noted, DARPA’s long-range vision and willingness to place big bets in university-led, high-risk, high-reward areas of research have have been responsible for a large share of the innovations that drive the U.S. economy and have made our military the most lethal and effective fighting force in history. This vision survived the Vietnam War and the constant pressure of the Cold War. There’s no doubt that DARPA can do much to contribute to solving today’s combat problems, and it may indeed be appropriate for the agency’s focus to shift in that direction. But it is critically important that there remain a home for long-range research vision focused on defense problems somewhere in the federal research portfolio. Failing to invest in the future leaves the country at the risk of suffering the technological surprise DARPA was originally chartered to prevent.