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Synchronizing time in modern warfare – down to billionths and trillionths of a second – is critical for mission success. High-tech missiles, sensors, aircraft, ships, and artillery all rely on atomic clocks on GPS satellites for nanosecond timing accuracy. A timing error of just a few billionths of a second can translate to positioning being off by a meter or more. If GPS were jammed by an adversary, time synchronization would rapidly deteriorate and threaten military operations.

The US Department of Defense is interested in the development of laser-based clocks that will be 100 times more accurate than today’s most precise models, while also small and rugged enough to be carried on Army vehicles and fighter jets.

DARPA’s Robust Optical Clock Network (ROCkN) program aims to create optical atomic clocks with low size, weight, and power (SWaP) that yield timing accuracy and holdover better than GPS atomic clocks and can be used outside a laboratory. 

The program is expected to leverage DARPA-funded research over the past couple of decades that has led to lab demonstration of the world’s most precise optical atomic clocks. 

“The goal is to transition optical atomic clocks from elaborate laboratory configurations to small and robust versions that can operate outside the lab,” said Tatjana Curcic, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “If we’re successful, these optical clocks would provide a 100x increase in precision, or decrease in timing error, over existing microwave atomic clocks.”

According to darpa.mil, the program is divided into two technical areas: The first focuses on developing a robust, high-precision small portable optical clock. The second area focuses on building a larger, but still transportable, optical clock with unprecedented holdover performance.