When rolling out the fiscal year 2017 defense budget request, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter revealed the existence of a Pentagon office working to merge the U.S. military’s “legacy platforms” with cutting-edge technologies. The previously classified Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) was established in 2012. While many of the SCO’s programs remain classified, physicist William Roper, who heads the office, is now free to discuss how his team operates, and a few of their past and present efforts. And Dr. Roper did just that at a recent talk he gave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and in a subsequent interview with Breaking Defense.
Roper began his July 13th talk at CSIS with an analogy to World War II, when countries working from a similar technological baseline—all of whom took advantage to one degree or another of advances in mechanization, motorization, aviation, and radio that matured before the war—had to improvise by combining available technologies when necessary to gain advantage. Like Carter and Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work before him, Roper highlighted the shrinking technological gap between the U.S. military and its potential competitors was made possible by the proliferation of precision munitions and advanced information technologies. He describes his office as a stopgap measure that will extend the life of existing platforms, and enhance their performance as the Pentagon attempts to once again expand the military’s qualitative edge through its Third Offset Strategy.
Yet the World War II analogy that Roper used to frame SCO’s efforts does not really fit. The context in which military personnel improvised in the manner Roper described included national industrial mobilization and a war effort that consumed 37 percent of gross domestic product at its peak, combined with specific problems in the field to which tactical ingenuity could be applied. A peacetime military—if the U.S. military can be called that after fifteen years of persistent military operations—functions under different circumstances. Lines of effort are fewer in number during peacetime, the share of national resources is less, and the problems upon which ingenuity must be brought to bear are more ambiguous.
That said Roper did present in his talk (and the interview that followed) intriguing ideas for enhancing America’s military capabilities, and an interesting model for doing so absent beginning costly new weapon programs. The SCO program that Roper seems most proud of is the conversion of an SM-6 (standard missile), a defensive system, into an anti-ship missile for the U.S. Navy. He also touted the potential of “autonomy kits” that would let sailors turn patrol boats into unmanned systems that could then be reverted to manned systems. For the Marines, Roper described a project to harness “big data” marketing software to anticipate negative social changes and anti-American sentiment that might affect ongoing operations. And as the Washington Post reported after the SCO’s existence was revealed, the office is experimenting with the use of fourth-generation fighter aircraft that can act as “motherships” for unmanned aerial vehicle swarms.
What may be more important than the particular capabilities the SCO is working on at any given time is the model under which it is working. According to Breaking Defense, Roper’s office has a flat $16 million a year budget that allows for analysis and testing. Specific projects are only funded in the regular budget once they prove their worth. While many of those projects remain classified, Roper said in his interview that the average timeframe for those that have been completed is three years.
The SCO chief credits the lack of formal requirements in the programs his office pursues. Requirements in major acquisition programs—which Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense refers to as “holy writ”—often lead to acquisition dysfunction because they serve the, often unfeasible, parochial desires of the military services. Roper describes his office as a partner to the services, where they come to SCO with desired capabilities, and the office can experiment on their behalf to see if a solution is possible by combining existing platforms and new technology.
The question remains about how long SCO’s mission will remain tenable. As mentioned above, Roper describes SCO as “buying time” for the Third Offset Strategy—an effort at innovation that will extend the U.S. military’s qualitative edge. As discussed here previously, innovation is as much about the destruction of old weapons, organizational structures, doctrines, and missions, as it is the creation of new ones. Roper describes military services that are eager to partner with his office. And there is little reason to doubt him, since SCO’s mission is about finding new ways to enhance what the services are currently doing. At some point, however, the Department of Defense will need to figure out what it will take for the services to approach the SCO about destroying a current capability to create something wholly new.