Center for Strategic Communication

Firefighters practice extinguishing flames engulfing an Air Force C-130 at Rammstein Air Base in Germany, 2007. Keeping the skies under American control is a top priority for Darpa’s new director. Photo: Flickr/USACE Europe District

The U.S. has total dominance of the skies above planet Earth, a defense budget five times as large as its nearest competitor, and a fleet of robotic aircraft and advanced manned planes. The newest leader of the Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers says the U.S. is more vulnerable than it thinks in the skies. Maintaining America’s air supremacy may be about to become a top priority for the agency that helped give the world the Predator drone.

Arati Prabhakar has kept a low profile since returning to Darpa on July 30 as its director. But in her first public speech since returning to the agency she left two decades ago as a program manager, Prabhakar mused on a subject outside her background in applied physics and clean energy: air power.

“We’re starting to think about how we maintain the level of control we have in the air domain, as a cornerstone of how we think about warfighting,” Prabhakar said in response to a question from Danger Room at a defense-industry breakfast Friday in northern Virginia. She’s going to get along awesomely with the U.S. Air Force.

Sure, the U.S. has a large and expanding fleet of armed drones, plus stealth fighter jets more advanced than any other nation has. America is upgrading its bombers and its flying gas stations, too. But Prabhakar said keeping competitors at bay is actually “such a huge technical challenge, not just in terms of the aircraft, but in terms of the missile capabilities, the sensing capabilities, our ability to affect the cyber [element] in the air domain.” And that’s part of her renewed focus on bringing about “radical transformation” in defense tech, a mission she said has gone a bit underemphasized as Darpa’s had to help fight two present-day wars.

“Now it’s 2012, and again, Darpa’s core mission is to be preparing for the future,” she said. “I think it’s a very important time for us as an agency, given our charter, to put our heads up and look ahead and to be cognizant to the complexity of the national security challenge, much broader than the counterinsurgency focus that has … pulled some of our more applied work.”

Prabhakar doesn’t have any specific program to announce yet. Her directorship is in its infancy, so she can be expected to reacquaint herself with an agency she admits has “virtually no overlap” with the one she left and think in broad terms about the direction she wants to take it.

Much of Prabhakar’s address to the National Defense Industrial Association signaled continuity. She praised several existing programs, like efforts to shoot missiles at enemy ships from thousands of miles away and create 3-D holograms of warzones. (Prabhakar also hinted, vaguely, at a new “Plan X” project to routinize attacks on enemy data networks that she inherited from former acting director Ken Gabriel.) Her tone was more down-to-earth — “Hey, I’m Arati,” she would welcome the crush of businessmen waiting to meet her — than her predecessor, Regina Dugan, who once greeted a cybersecurity seminar by musing on the “timeless words of our existence.” (Sources in Congress say they’ve seen a similar shift, with Darpa adopting a new, cooperative tone with the Hill.)

For the moment, at least, Prabhakar’s vision of “radical transformation” isn’t that radical: Prabhakar is talking about upgrading stuff the U.S. already does well, like long-range missile strikes, offensive cyber capabilities and old-fashioned airpower. It’s probably unfair to expect a new director to come into her job with a fully-formed vision of radical transformation. But there’s a big difference between maintaining a traditional U.S. advantage and creating a whole new one that no one else anticipated.