Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Darpa Budget Cut $130 Million for 'Poor Execution'

By Noah Shachtman

September 25, 2008

Mf_120_itsok_fCongress just cut $130 million from Darpa's budget for next year, citing "poor execution" of previous funded projects. Some in charge of the purse strings say the Pentagon's premiere research agency wasn't spending the cash it was given. The agency's chief figures Darpa is being punished for holding its contractors accountable for their work.

Earlier in the week, House and Senate negotiators agreed to a defense budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on October 1st. As usual, they agreed to the vast majority of spending proposed by the Defense Department. And the programs they tweaked, cut or increase funding for were altered without much comment. For the most part.

But in the case of Darpa -- the Defense Department's cutting-edge science and technology division -- Congress proclaimed "poor execution" a half-dozen times, as it trimmed more than $130 million from Darpa's approximately $3 billion budget.

For months, Darpa chief Tony Tether has been in a nasty fight with Congress and the Pentagon brass over how he manages the agency. The Defense Department's money men complain that Darpa "underexecute[s]" many of its high-tech programs -- in other words, it doesn't spend the money it was allotted. Earlier in the year, Defense Department higher-ups took away another $130 million from Darpa's 2008 kitty.

Tether says he won't pay for research projects that aren't hitting their ambitious goals. "The OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] comptroller apparently does not believe in accountability," Tether told Danger Room in June. "They seem to believe that contractors should be funded regardless of their performance, in order to make the obligations metrics look good. At least, that is the way they act."

These latest cuts -- from space programs, biotech, "advanced warfighting technology" and other accounts -- are seen as a continuation of that argument. Congress has been dissatisfied with Darpa's "slow obligation and expenditure rates," one Capitol Hill source says. Darpa, I'm told, is still convinced that its "go/no-go approach" is the right away to keep the agency's researchers on track.