Where is DARPA?


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Last year, Hewlett-Packard Enterprises allowed for the Russian government to review the source code for ArcLight, the “nerve center,” according to Reuters for the United States’ military cybersecurity. The system in question is responsible for alerting American military leaders if their computer networks have been attacked by foreign intruders. What’s more (of course), the private sector also heavily relies on ArcLight. In order to win a contract to sell their software to the Russian public sector, HPE had to essentially allow for their family jewels to be revealed to a company that conducts software tests for Russia’s premiere spy agency (and the descendant of the KGB), the FSB.

Naturally, HPE, the Russians, and some analysts in the West insist that this isn’t as big of a deal as some argue it is. Irrespective of that debate, the greater question remains: why is the United States military so dependent on software created by Hewlett-Packard to begin with? Where is the innovation?

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How is it that our highly technological military is dependent upon civilian systems that can be legally sold to American rivals for their essential cybersecurity (this is where public-private cooperation starts to hit its limitations, by the way)? Why is the United States military using private sector cybersecurity systems that are somehow compatible with Russian and Chinese systems?

Think, McFly. Think! 

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The American taxpayers fork over nearly $550 billion per year to the Defense Department and $12.8 billion for the Central Intelligence Agency. Within the DoD there are a retinue of agencies and departments that purportedly specialize in innovating our national security. Notably, there’s the enigmatic Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Here is an agency that has culled from the best universities some of the most creative and innovative minds, who are given nearly limitless resources to master the “dark arts” of military technological innovation–and the best we as a country can do is to rely on Hewlett-Packard for cybersecurity?! This is to say nothing of the CIA’s Science and Technology Division (which helped to develop the SR-71 Blackbird) or the National Security Agency (which is the world’s leading signals intelligence collection agency).

In 2011, the former Inspector General for the National Security Agency during the George W. Bush Administration, Joel Brenner, released a fantastic book entitled, “America the Vulnerable: Inside the New Threat Matrix of Digital Espionage, Crime, and Warfare.” The basic thesis of his book was this: the civilian part of the U.S. government needed to innovate and learn to operate jointly. In particular, those organizations dealing with cybersecurity needed to get much closer together on these issues. Further, Brenner argued that the government needed to figure out how to start using un-hackable communications to share and collect sensitive data.

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Earlier this week, China announced another milestone in their decade-long project to develop Quantum Internet had been achieved. The Quantum Internet plays on quantum mechanics, a subfield of physics. It relies on what Albert Einstein called “Spooky Action at a Distance,” whereby one can manipulate particles at the sub-atomic level, and use them to transport un-hackable–and voluminous–amounts of data. The communication can also conceivably travel limitless distances, since it is interacting with the particles on a quantum level.

Now, the Chinese government is doubling down on its investment into this nearly-un-hackable technology that has been dubbed as a “truly revolutionary” form of communication. The Shandong-based company involved with this project is, of course, partly state-owned–meaning that they are one with the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese are aware of their vulnerability to American hacking and they are remedying this problem with due haste. In fact, the Chinese hope that once they streamline and mass produce the technology, they will be able to sell it to any interested parties (i.e. American allies, like the Germans, who feign outrage when claims of NSA hacking of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone were revealed by NSA leaker Ed Snowden in 2013).

Besides, our European “friends” have consistently shown their love of undercutting Uncle Sam in exchange for economic scraps from the Chinese–the French, Swiss, and Germans happily sell advanced dual-use systems that are incorporated into China’s military. Meanwhile, in 2015, Britain happily signed on to the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which was a direct challenge to the American-backed international banking system. The next great global communications system, the Quantum Internet, will be no different.

Despite the naysayers in the West, this technology is panning out. Not only is it a direct national security liability, but it is also the basis of an entirely new generation of revolutionary, disruptive technologies that are being created outside of the United States. While we can certainly piggyback on to this quantum revolution, we are missing the almighty First-Mover Advantage. What’s more, unlike in business where imitators can exist and be profitable…unless imitators start to innovate at the geopolitical level, they don’t last very long. From the quantum technology developed, soon China will profit from the explosive computing power that quantum computers allow for and from the strategic advantages that quantum radar provides the People’s Liberation Army (the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is America’s revolutionary new fighter costing over $1 trillion and the Chinese now have a quantum radar system they claim can detect those fighters).

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What are we paying the Defense Department for? The United States dominated the revolution in computing. Silicon-based computer chips came to drive the American economic advance from the 1970’s onward. Silicon Valley earned its name from its singular focus on technological innovation, which drove the exponential growth of the United States. Yet, the single-greatest revolution in computing came from Communist China of all places!

The preeminent physicist, Dr. Michio Kaku, commented in 2010 on how Moore’s Law was actually reaching its limits. He posited the notion that, unless the world wanted to endure technological stagnation, that a revolutionary next step in computing was needed. Kaku listed quantum computing as among the saving grace technologies that will prevent a decline in humanity’s great technological innovation craze that has dominated the world since the mid-twentieth century. I don’t mean to be reductionist here, but has anyone ever thought of the correlation between the potential slowdown in the purported exponential growth of silicon-based computers with the apparent decline in America’s economy?

Of course, like the United States today, Great Britain was once the hub of the world: its empire was the dominant military on the planet, its economy was the driver of the global economy, and it led the way in the Industrial Revolution. That is until a plucky upstart nation of hardscrabble scoundrels, rebels, and gangsters started using Britain’s globalized economic model against it by imitating British innovation until, eventually, the Americans began innovating on their own (remember Oded Shenkar’s postulation in his 2010 book, “Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge” that if given enough time, imitators can eventually start to innovate). Within a century of having experienced this sustained economic assault, as well as having been drained by pointless colonial wars from India to Africa, followed on by the devastating world wars, the British Empire was history and the United States was the greatest state on Earth.

China has replicated the exact same thing that the United States did to Great Britain with the Cotton Gin, only the Chinese did it in the Digital Age. This fact, coupled with the potential limitless growth opportunities quantum technology provides, means that China will become the world’s greatest state in a shockingly short period of time (unless its unstable political system collapses, though this seems less and less likely). China’s government has little issue with leveraging its business and innovation communities for bolstering strategic gains. Yet, this is a country that came from nothing; it was an agricultural backwater until the late 1980’s, when Deng Xiaoping began to implement his market reforms. Even in the computer age of the post-Cold War, China was not a leader in anything–until the last several years.

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Eli Whitney might never have created the Cotton Gin had the British not allowed for their ideas and concepts to leave the United Kingdom (which until 1780, the Crown had zealously guarded).

How is it that the United States, which is ostensibly the world leader in technology and innovation; a country that is the world’s largest (for now) economy (in GDP terms); a state that spends more on defense than the next ten combined (including China); and a country that is home to some of the world’s largest companies with deep pockets, has had its lunch eaten in every meaningful way by a state like China that has been in near-chaos for much of the last century?

If fundamental reforms in America’s trade policy are not enacted we will forever be a second-rate power. The Pentagon must be audited, so that lawmakers can actually determine where money should be spent (again, how has DARPA not already developed the kind of technology that China has?). And, the political system needs to be reformed so that the government is not balkanized and true innovation and national security prioritization occurs.

One thing is certain: if DARPA and other “innovation hubs” in the government cannot or will not accomplish their core mission, then they are unnecessary and should be cut. We not only live in an era that demands one “innovate or die,” but we also live in a period when “perform or perish” should be the guiding principle of all organization, private and public sector alike.

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