If the fiscal 2012 Homeland Security Appropriations bill now under consideration in the Senate becomes law, it would slash research and development funding by 81%, effectively ending the Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate’s ability to innovate across a multitude of critical technology areas.

That’s the warning from Paul Benda, the newly-appointed Director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA).

In an exclusive interview with Breaking Gov, Benda said the massive funding reductions passed by the House on June 2 would force the elimination of research programs designed to bring new technology innovations to bear on everything from the threat of suicide bombers to attacks on mass transit systems and fundamental Internet security issues.

“If we take the hit that the House has already passed, you’re going to see a huge loss in capability not just for DHS but for other agencies and security sectors that depend on our work,” said Benda. The cuts would also lead to the loss of approximately 1,400 science and engineering jobs at DHS. Benda outlined some of that impact in testimony before a House subcomittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection in and Security Technologies May 26.

Marc Pearl, President and CEO of the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council, called the proposed cuts in the House bill “sever and disastrous,” adding they would undermine the progress made to date in homeland security. Peal is scheduled to testify July 15 at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on DHS’ use of emerging technologies.

“The S&T Directorate’s approach to home land security R&D is based on our running a marathon, not a sprint,” said Pearl. “We can ill afford to propose this type of cut in this fashion because we’re not necessarily seeing immediate results.” Pearl added that industry has been outspoken about the procedural changes that need to be made in DHS’s dealings with the private sector, but “this is about fixing the process, not eliminating the Directorate’s ability to function effectively.”

Programs will end

Researchers from HSARPA are either on the verge or already beginning to make significant progress on a number of critical homeland security technology innovations.

Some of the most critical programs that would be eliminated involve research to detect improvised explosive devices targeting mass transit systems, new chemical detection capabilities that would enable security scanners to detect homemade explosives, an innovative sealing technology that could automatically seal cracks or breaks in a transit tunnel in the event of a massive flood, and critical cybersecurity research that has already paid dividends across the .gov and .com domains.

“We’re still going to focus on bio-defense because we’re the only agency doing that,” said Benda “And we’re still going to have some capabilities for aviation security, but some of the explosives testing we’re going to have to stop. We’re going to have to stop all of the chemical detection research, all of our first responder support, and all of our cybersecurity programs will be gone.”

In the cybersecurity realm, this means ending research into Domain Name System (DNS) security to prevent hackers from re-directing Internet users to fake Websites – a critical DHS-sponsored capability that was adopted by Microsoft Corp. in its Windows 7 operating system.

Other research areas, such as real-time detection of biological attacks and voice and data interoperability for first responders, would also for the first time see virtually no federal funding.

Progress that matters

The financial crisis for the S&T directorate comes at a time when existing programs are beginning to show real progress. For example, an agreement signed in April with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) is on schedule to deploy the nation’s first “easy pass” infrastructure at select border crossings within the next 9 months. The system would provide electronic cargo locks and card reader infrastructure to certified and trusted shippers, allowing them to breeze through border security checkpoints.

“We do that using an electronic chain of custody lock that can track where that lock has been, if it’s deviated from its planned route, and if anyone has tampered with the container,” said Benda. And with more than 4,000 vehicles crossing the border to and from Canada every hour, the technology isn’t only about improving security.

“Were buying new locks for industry partners that CBP selects and were buying the infrastructure for CBP,” said Benda. “Not only does it improve security but it improves the free flow of goods.”

In April, S&T unveiled the first security camera capable of withstanding a blast from an improvised explosive, such as those used in the mass transit bombings in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Known as BRAVE (Blast-Resistant Autonomous Video Equipment), the technology is the product of a cooperative research and development agreement with Leesburg, Va.-based Visual Defence USA Inc.

The Pentagon is now looking into potential uses for the camera, said Benda. “What started with DHS has branched out to other agencies and infrastructure sectors, and is now the first certified and tested piece of video equipment capable of surviving a suicide bomber blast.”

Uncertain Future

Despite these successes and the innovation currently in development, many of these programs simply can’t continue under a $398 million budget, said Benda. “Basically, when you get down to that level all of the programs for mass transit go away. And all of the programs that leverage private industry are going to have to be scaled way back,” he said.

And that could lead to more problems, said Roger London, Chairman of the American Security Challenge, an annual competition dedicated to helping small businesses bring their homeland security innovations to market quicker. “How will the market understand DHS’ unique requirements and who will fund the customization of those capabilities?” asked London. If the budget cuts are approved, “it will be critical for DHS to have visibility and strong relationships in the entrepreneur and early stage investor community to be able to effectively broadcast their requirements,” said London.

For Benda, such a model would represent a major step in the wrong direction. “Who else is worried about protecting a subway from a bio attack? It isn’t just S&T support to DHS,” said Benda. “It’s S&T support to the nation.”

The following is a snapshot of critical security research and development programs that would be lost if the FY 2012 House Homeland Security Appropriations Bill (H.R. 2017) passes.

  • Border Security Tunnel Detection
  • Chem/Bio Detection Rapid Biodetection (portable BioDetector)
  • Bio-Attack Resiliency Underground Transport Restoration (cleanup)
  • Explosives Detection Mass Transit
  • Explosives Detection Next Generation Passenger Checkpoint
  • Explosives Detection Vehicle-Borne IED Detection
  • Resiliency Resilient Electric Grid
  • Info Sharing & Interoperability Cloud Computing
  • Info Sharing & Interoperability Converged Interoperable Communications
  • Info Sharing & Interoperability Law Enforcement Data Fusion
  • Cyber Security Process Control Systems Security
  • Cyber Security Secure Protocols
  • Cyber Security Insider Threat Detection