Battlespace Tech

DARPA wants a leg-up on off-the-shelf weapons

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency understands that the United States’ “near-monopoly” on advanced technologies is evaporating. The increasing proliferation and availability of cheap technologies has the potential to pose grave national security threats. So in the interest of knowing thy enemy, the agency wants to see what people could come up with to threaten current military operations, equipment or personnel.

The goal of the Improv program – a reference to the improvised devices constructed by adversaries to harm U.S. personnel – is to fund a short feasibility study in which performers will compete to build prototype threats from available commercial technology. DARPA is encouraging participation from a wide swath of participants – such as technical specialists, researchers, developers and skilled hobbyists – and a wide range of technologies, from cell phones to surveying equipment.

Non-military technical specialties such as transportation, construction, maritime and communications systems are of particular interest to the Improv team, DARPA said in a presolicitation. Participants “are free to reconfigure, repurpose, program, reprogram, modify, combine, or recombine commercially available technology in any way within the bounds of local, state, and federal laws and regulations," according to the announcement.

“DARPA’s mission is to create strategic surprise, and the agency primarily does so by pursuing radically innovative and even seemingly impossible technologies,” said program manager John Main. “Improv is being launched in recognition that strategic surprise can also come from more familiar technologies, adapted and applied in novel ways.”

“When I began my career, most technology of consequence originated in America, and much of that was sponsored by the government, especially the Defense Department. Today, much more technology is commercial,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said at George Washington University in November. “And as many of you know, the competition is global. Lots of other countries are trying to catch up with our advances, the ones we’ve enjoyed for decades in areas like stealth, and cyber and space.”

The Defense Department’s Third Offset Strategy – aimed primarily at offsetting the technological gains made by near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China to maintain technological military superiority – has spurred a fusion between the government and private sector. 

Upon contract awards following pre-award proposal submissions, partners will participate in a feasibility study to allow for greater clarity on capabilities, prototype construction building a prototype to be tested and a prototype evaluation phase. 

A proposer’s day webcast is scheduled for March 29 and 30 introduce the targeted research community vision and goals as well as explain the approach, scope and program structure. 

DARPA said a formal broad agency announcement is planned for mid-March.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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