The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is the world’s most advanced research agency. With a $4.1 billion budget request for fiscal 2023, the agency is largely behind uncompromising defense and civilian research endeavors, including human-machine interfaces which allow humans to communicate instantly with machines and augmented and virtual reality. One of fourteen critical research areas highlighted by the DoD and primarily funded by DARPA, the controversial human-machine interface technology—there are others, including Directed Energy Weapons—has the ability to influence all facets of life, enabling humans to operate connected devices simply by thought. Alternatively, the technology would also allow automation to flow in the opposite direction—from the outside world into the human brain

Brief History of DARPA

DARPA was established in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower in response to the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. Determined to be “the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises,” the agency has been the ambitious force behind such life-altering innovations as the internet, stealth technology, autonomous vehicles, gene drives, GPS receivers small enough to embed in myriad consumer devices, the recent introduction of mRNA-based “vaccines,” and other “technical and scientific solutions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.”

DARPA, Moderna, mRNA Technology, and Pandemic Prevention

Indeed, as previously reported by UncoverDC, DARPA’s mostly silent role in the pandemic is significant. The agency strategically aligned with Moderna in 2013 to begin funding work on messenger RNA vaccine technology that is the foundation of the current COVID-19 mRNA “vaccine” program. Prior to the pandemic, DARPA’s collaboration with Moderna produced the “first systemic mRNA therapeutic to show the production of a secreted protein in humans.” Moreover, in 2017, DARPA introduced the Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3), designed around RNA vaccine technology. In a hint toward future ambitions, DARPA indicated that by “growing viruses needed to support evaluation of therapies in laboratory tests,” the program aims to develop an integrated platform that uses nucleic acid sequences to halt the spread of viral infections in sixty days or less.

Screenshot / DARPA

DARPA and DoD’s Fourteen Critical Technologies

Shrouded in secrecy with countless classified programs, Timothy P. Grayson, Director of the Strategic Technology Office at DARPA, shared with Forbes in 2021 that he doesn’t see the agency’s role as just solving the problems identified by the armed forces. Instead, DARPA remains focused on its roughly one hundred project managers housed in six technical directories called “Offices.” The agency offers project managers a high level of freedom and autonomy for taking on the most formidable technical challenges within the “Offices,” including biological technologies, defense sciences, information innovation, microsystems technology, strategic technology, and tactical technology. In 2015, DARPA’s “Breakthrough Technologies for National Securities” report summed up its overall motivation and objective, stating:

Our muse at DARPA is technology, and our objective is national security, but we are motivated by that same irrepressible urge. DARPA’s people come through the front door each day to imagine a better future, to drive technology in pursuit of that future, to launch new trajectories of U.S. capability. We come to change what’s possible.

DARPA’s detailed fiscal 2023 budget plan, released on Apr. 25, shows a $250 million increase over its fiscal 2022 budget. The increases include $833 million for microelectronics, $412 for Artificial Intelligence (AI) endeavors, and $414 million for biotech programs. Many of DARPA’s budget priorities serve the Pentagon’s strategy for investing in 14 critical technologies, which aim to “chart a course for the United States military to strengthen its technological superiority amidst a global race for technological advantage.” Elaborating on the millions requested to develop “novel biological solutions,” the budget document states:

“As the DoD expands operations into previously inaccessible domains, new and unique logistical constraints imposed by extreme conditions and resource scarcity threaten force readiness. This program will develop technologies to enable new capabilities that harness microbes, biopolymers, and/or other bioprocesses to protect warfighters and maintain performance of warfighting platforms.”

Screenshot / U.S. Navy

Hyper-focused on technology, a six-page memo released on Feb. 1, 2022, by DoD’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Heidi Shyu, outlines the department’s vision to “innovate at speed and scale now and into the future.” The memo states that the OUSD(R&E) works closely with the Military Services, Combatant Commands, industry, academia, and other stakeholders to “ensure that the Department’s science and technology strategy addresses the key national security challenges—from rising seas to a rising China—that the United States faces today and will face in the future.” The 14 critical technologies are divided into three categories defined as “Seed Areas of Emerging Opportunity,” “Effective Adoption Areas – where there exists vibrant commercial sector activity,” and “Defense-Specific Areas.” As highlighted in the memo, they are:

1. Seed Areas of Emerging Opportunity

  • Biotechnology: By using living systems to produce a wide range of technologies and capabilities, the emerging engineering discipline of biotechnology will “avoid surprise” in fighting global pandemics by reducing logistics and sustainable costs and increasing energy efficiency. 
  • Quantum Science: From more accurate information to faster decision making, by studying physical properties at small and atomic scales, DoD applications in quantum science “promise to enable leap-ahead capabilities” in unprecedented computational speeds to help solve even the most complex analytical problems. 
  • Future Generation Wireless Technology (FutureG): As Fifth Generation (5G) wireless technology continues to make its debut across the nation in support of what’s ahead, Future G is a suite of emerging wireless network technologies enabled by DoD and commercial industry cooperation that will lay the groundwork for maintaining our economic and national security.
  • Advanced Materials: By exploring novel materials with higher strength, lighter weight, and higher efficiency to “handle more extreme temperatures,” advanced materials will examine ways to “dramatically improve many of the Department’s capabilities.” 

2. Effective Adoption Areas – where there is existing vibrant commercial sector activity

  • Trusted AI and Autonomy: AI is the software engineering discipline of augmenting the capabilities of software applications to complete duties that currently need human intelligence. An engineering subfield of AI, machine learning through AI holds “tremendous promise” to improve the ability and function of nearly all systems and operations. Trusted AI with trusted autonomous systems are “imperative to dominate future conflicts.”
  • Integrated Network System-of-Systems: This technology delivers real-time dissemination of information across DoD by providing effective command control of an interoperable network in a contested electromagnetic environment that leverages emerging capabilities across the electromagnetic spectrum, such as 5G.  
  • Microelectronics: These circuits and components serve as the “brain” of human-made electronic operational systems. Essential to virtually every military and commercial system, supply chain concerns in microelectronics have exposed national economic and security risks.
  • Space Technology: Composed of space flight, space communication, and other technologies essential to maintain space operations, novel space technologies are “necessary to enable resilient cross-domain operations including space situational awareness, space control, on-orbit processing, and autonomy. 
  • Renewable Energy Generation and Storage: The storage focus includes solar wind, bio-based and geothermal technologies, advanced energy storage, electronic engines, and power grid integration. 
  • Advanced Computing and Software: DoD must “rapidly modernize its legacy software system with resilient, affordable, and assured new software” and migrate to a Development-Security-Operations (DevSecOps) approach in its software development. 
  • Human Machine Interfaces: With rapid advances in human-machine technology, these “intuitive” interactive human-machine interfaces allow instantaneous mission planning and command “by providing a common operational picture to geographically distributed operations.” 

3. Defense-Specific Areas

  • Directed Energy: By using lasers, high-powered microwaves, and high-energy particle beams to produce “precision disruption, damage, or destruction” of targets, directed energy systems will allow the DoD to counter current and future threats “at the speed of light.” 
  • Hypersonics: Flying within the atmosphere at or above the speed of sound (or approx. 3,700 miles per hour), hypersonics significantly shorten the time to strike a target and increase unpredictability. 
  • Integrated Sensing and Cyber: By providing an advantage for the joint force in highly contested environments, the Department seeks to develop wideband sensors to “operate at the intersection of cyberspace, electronic warfare, radar, and communications.” 

Regarding DARPA’s commitment to the Pentagon’s 14 critical technologies, program Director Dr. Stefanie Tompkins noted that while other agencies may take incremental steps toward addressing these key areas, DARPA wants to initiate significant capability shifts through its program offices. At a conference in April, she remarked:

“DARPA is looking at what is the big breakthrough that might break what’s on everybody else’s roadmap and change the entire solution space.”