WASHINGTON, April 4, 2016 —
Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles about DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office
Start with an established military system like the Navy’s Standard Missile-6, or SM-6, a surface-to-air air defense weapon first deployed in 1981. It and its variants launch from cruisers and destroyers and can stop incoming ballistic and cruise missiles at low altitudes in the atmosphere.
Now make it do something completely different -- like offensively attacking and destroying enemy ships at extended ranges.
Conceiving of and testing prototypes of such technology transformations is the job of a small team of visionaries and technical engineers at the Defense Department’s nearly four-year-old Strategic Capabilities Office, or SCO.
Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter created the organization in August 2012 after looking across the department and “correctly [realizing] that going back into great-power competition [with Russia and China] is going to require bringing back a lot of capabilities that had gone dormant in the department” since the fall of the Soviet Union, SCO Director Will Roper said during a recent media roundtable.
“The United States is now a somewhat contested superpower given that the world's had, in some cases, 20 years to watch our power-projection means in the Middle East,” Roper said, adding that SCO was stood up to be a bellwether for the department to plunge into this environment, finding ways to gain back advantage, produce new concepts and provide options now rather than five or 10 years from now.
The department has many organizations that do the future very well, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the director said.
“DARPA historically has done future technology better than anyone,” he added, “so we're willing to accept in SCO that the DARPAs [and others] are going to continue to push out great technology for us. Our job is to try to buy them some time to be able to do those next-generation leap-aheads.”
Roper likened the United States to a great football team whose playbook adversaries have keenly studied for years.
“Opponents have made a bet that they can take the systems the world has watched us use for a couple of decades and try to make them contested or deny them access to regions of the world where we may want them to act,” he said.
But great teams realize they’re being watched and get surprise and creativity back on their side by running trick plays, Roper explained.
“One of our primary questions in SCO is how do we use the systems we already have tremendous investment in, in ways the world has never seen and … [doesn’t] know how to counter.”
The engineers at SCO do this using one of three approaches -- by taking something designed for one mission and making it do a completely different mission, or by integrating systems into teams -- “I can’t solve the problem with system A or system B but by connecting them together I can,” Roper explained -- or changing the game by adding in commercial technology.
SM-6 was an example of the first approach, which Roper called repurposing.
An example of the second approach, integrating systems into teams, is the Arsenal Plane Program, he said.
“The point of the plane is to be a big weapons truck supporting forward fighters,” Roper said, adding that SCO has analyzed multiple aircraft for use in the program. In this case integration into a team is needed because 5th-generation systems like the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter are too small to carry a lot of weapons.
“You could just accept that you've got to go land and resupply and then go back into the fight ... or you can try to offload all the weapons, keep those forward fighters flying more of a … forward-observer role, and network them to an airplane that's standing off [and] doing the job of bringing in weapons and supporting multiple fighters forward, he said.
The third approach is bringing in commercial technology, which Roper says is changing everything.
“By wrapping [all kinds of existing technology] in smart sensing and computing and networking, it's changed everything about the resulting capabilities. It allows us to do things better, in a more distributed way with more control even when we're far away from the thing that we need to be able to see and touch,” he said.
“Of all these three functions -- repurposing systems, integrating systems and fusing commercial technology -- it's the latter that I think will be the toughest challenge for the department,” Roper noted. By the time DoD is ready to use the first generation of a system, the commercial world may be on the third generation, he explained, adding “We're going to have to change our processes to keep up.”
Partnering With the Services
Everything SCO does, it does in partnership with the services, he said.
“No SCO project is a SCO-alone effort,” Roper explained. “Whatever we're reinventing, whatever we're re-imagining is owned by someone, so we can't do anything with it if they're not with us. We tend to have the strategy and the analysis side of the house but they have the engineers and the programmatic expertise. If we partner we can go faster together than either group could alone,” he said.
With its six government employees, roughly 20 technical engineer contractors and 13 military personnel and other detailees, Roper says SCO produces five or six new concepts a year, and that the office so far has a “very high transition rate” from concept to program of record.
“Year-by-year we look at all the systems we have in the department and we are looking to make one of those three [approaches] work to our advantage. We've found that most of the systems we have can be changed … to do new things,” he said.
Behind the Door
Roper says SCO is keeping a lot of its successes classified because the primary goal is to have trick plays behind the door that the department can use to win conflicts if it needs to by taking back the element of surprise.
“But it's also important that we maintain deterrence, so we're starting to share a few of these projects publicly so we can show the world that we can change quickly, we can do things differently, and that regaining the advantage just like the football analogy does not have to be a 14-year technology development cycle,” he said.
“So we'd like a taste of this to be outside,” Roper said, “but … our best projects, I promise you, are behind the door, and they should be.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)