Recently declassified Pentagon weapons office says rapid prototyping is secret to its success

The secretive Pentagon organization in charge of turning existing weapons systems into new warfighting concepts says it has a perfect track record so far: the military services have accepted all six of the technologies the Strategic Capabilities Office has offered up to date, a success rate its leaders say is largely due to its emphasis on rapid prototyping.

The SCO has only been up and running since 2012, and its very existence was classified until last year. But within the Defense Department, demand for its services has skyrocketed. Its budget, which is paid by the military services and other Defense organizations it partners with, has grown from $50 million in 2012 to more than $900 million in 2017. Besides the six projects that have already transitioned to the military services, 28 more are in the works, including five that are close to transition.

All of the concepts use proven technology. But that’s a far different matter from proving their use on the battlefield, said Dr. Will Roper, the director of the Strategic Capabilities Office.

“The services, who are our partners on all SCO initiatives, really need to see an operational demonstration before they want to take it and create a program of record, and they’re wise to do that,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Because until you’ve seen it demonstrated operationally, how do you know that there’s not some kind of you know bug under the hood that’s going to end up driving cost, schedule and performance? When we’re able to prototype and demonstrate one of our advanced concepts, the services have taken them from us every single time. I really do believe it’s the natural bridge from the world of science and technology into new programs, and it will keep us from getting stuck with lemons in our programs of record. You want your failures to occur in prototyping.”

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The Pentagon says the SCO is its near-term response to a problem that started to dawn on senior officials about five years ago: The U.S. has had an unrivaled technological advantage over every other military on the planet for about a quarter century, but the gap is rapidly narrowing, partly because so many more technologies are commercially available, and partly because potential adversaries have had so much time to study and defeat the systems that have been in the U.S. military’s inventory for decades.

“If our military were a football team, analysts would say we have run our current playbook for too long,” Roper said. “Rivals have watched decades of game film and exploited it. But whenever this happens in football, successful teams turn this into an advantage by creating trick plays. Regaining the element of surprise with systems we have today is our counter-countermove to defeat the advanced threats we face, and I’m pleased to say that many systems have been up to this task.”

Over the longer term, the Pentagon is focused on building a new breed of weapons systems that can re-grow its technological advantage, incorporating artificial intelligence, human-machine teaming and autonomous systems in ways that instantaneously coordinate battle operations in the air, on the ground, on and under the sea and in cyberspace. DoD generally refers to that project as the “third offset” strategy.

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But since the federal acquisition system is notoriously bad at building brand-new weapons systems in a rapid fashion, SCO’s job is to bridge the gap until the new systems can come online. Instead of a traditional acquisition office, it’s DoD’s version of MacGyver — albeit with a billion-dollar budget — taking old weapons systems the military services already have in their inventories and finding new ways to repurpose their underlying capabilities with quick turnaround times.

Roper said the office is trying to do that in several specific ways, including by finding new methods for weapons systems to work across domains that have traditionally been the province of the respective military services that are supposed to be in charge of air, land or sea.

“Blurring domains increases the complexity of fighting the United States,” he said. “As an example, we’re upgrading the Army’s ATACMS missile to enable it to sink enemy ships in addition to its land-strike duties.”

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In other cases, the office is working on ways to “team” a given weapons system with another one, in ways that come together to bring a brand-new capability to the battlefield, but that are also so complex that no mission commander could put it together on-the-fly.

One such example is what the SCO calls the “Ghost Fleet.”

The idea is to turn some of the Navy’s smaller vessels into automated “mobs” that can go into dangerous territory to gather intelligence without putting sailors, or high-value ships at risk of attack. A similar project, called Avatar, will use swarms of cheap, networked flying drones to help Air Force pilots in existing aircraft perform some of their missions without requiring them to actually fly into dangerous territory.

Another project is trying to bring the concept of electromagnetic railguns — a concept the Navy has been working on in its laboratories for years — into the Army’s inventory much more quickly than if the Army had started from scratch. Those hypervelocity guns would use the Paladin artillery that has been around since the 1990s as a new way to defend against incoming missiles.

Roper said one reason that program is showing promise is because of the SCO’s close partnership with the military’s existing research laboratories.

“To get the most out of that prototyping, it’s important that we make sure that lab-developed technology can be transitioned to the subsequent industry partner,” he said. “For the hypervelocity projectile, the first articles were built in government laboratories, but they’ve since been transitioned to industry. So it gets industry out of the starting blocks faster and keeps our scientists and engineers on the cutting edge.”

But Roper said several of the office’s projects aren’t just a matter of reusing existing weapons systems. In some cases, it’s looking for ways to combine those systems with new commercial technologies.

In one case, the SCO is looking at ways to use the types of sensors that are now common in smartphones to help weapons determine their position in a hypothetical scenario where an enemy has managed to jam or disable the military’s GPS systems. Another, called Perdix, aims to use commercially available 3-D printers to make swarming “micro-drones” that can perform search missions in dangerous areas.

Roper acknowledges those same technologies are available to potential adversaries. But, he said, other militaries aren’t able to combine them in the ways the U.S. can, nor operate them with the same degree of skill.

“Our approach often has cost and speed benefits, but its core tenet, the need for change, is anchored in the department’s greatest strength, one that cannot be easily stolen or copied,” he said. “That’s our experienced operators who can do the unparalleled with today’s systems and rapidly master any unconventional tactics we throw at them.”