WASHINGTON -- A largely hidden office until earlier this year, the Strategic Capabilities office (SCO) is a small team within the Department of Defense that seeks to take existing technologies and exploit them to give US warfighters an edge for near-term potential conflicts.

If DARPA is focused on the needs for 10 years in the future, the SCO is about the next three or four years, and that means the office needs to turn out programs as quickly as possible, SCO head William Roper told reporters Sept. 8. And that means working closely with the services to identify needs and test solutions.

"Every project you see with SCO, if we're doing it, there is a service partner with us. Most of the time we're not asking them for funding," Roper said, although the services can kick in money to help with testing. The goal of SCO, he added, is to "burn down the risk of a concept that the service likes, but is too risky for their budget at present."

For both the Air Force and Marines, the SCO has experimented with autonomy to boost current capabilities, with an emphasis on teaming manned assets with unmanned systems.

"I think that technology is a current technology. 'Autonomy' is a word we use, but it's really a spectrum," Roper said. "My gut tells me we will not have to be at the extreme end, with highly complex behavior, to get a lot of the benefits that a manned/unmanned team will have."

Click here for our complete coverage of the 2016 Air Force Association conference.

The Air Force's Perdix

While the SCO's work on the so-called Arsenal Plane has been an attention getter, another Air Force/SCO program has already undergone operational testing.

The Perdix is an unmanned system, roughly the length of a large hand, which comes with two sets of wings, a small battery pack, and a built-in camera. It's a simple design that originated in 2011 with MIT's Lincoln Lab and was later picked up by the SCO for experimentation. Roper's team is now working on the 7th generation of the design, with plans to continue to tweak it going forward.

While Perdix can be hand-launched from the ground, the real potential for the technology comes when a system is stuffed into a carbon-fiber box and loaded, en masse, into the flare launcher aboard a fighter jet such as an F-16 and F/A-18, both of which have live-tested the technology.  

When launched, the box protects the Perdix from the first brush with the elements and gives it time to get far enough away from the jet to safely deploy. The drone then launches from the protective casing, fully boots up, and begins searching for and connecting to other Perdix systems – creating a swarm of small unmanned systems which can feed information back to the user.

The system was successfully tested during a Feb. 2015 exercise in Alaska, which proved the Perdix could handle the extreme cold it would need to in order to survive being ejected from a plane. Overall, Roper estimated there have been "about 300" deployments of the system from aircraft, with testing happening almost monthly.

The design is based entirely on commercial parts, and the body can be 3D printed. In other words, the government can contract out to anyone who does additive manufacturing to buy waves of the systems – and then can do another contract for the next generation when that is ready.

"Every single piece of Perdix has a part number. You could go build one if you have a garage benchtop lab. The outer mold line is 3-D printed. So it’s a great case of a commercial base being there," Roper said.

Roper declined to get into the full spectrum of how Perdix could be used other than to say it has ISR capabilities, but Ben FitzGerald, with the Center for a New American Security, notes that the technology could provide both defensive and offensive options for pilots.

"You could just fly these things at enemy aircraft, put them into air intakes" like a flock of small birds, FitzGerald said. "You could use these as a chaff replacement. It could actually be more effective – it could chase down or take a second go at the weapon."

But, FitzGerald notes, a lot of this will depend on how the software develops, which remains the trickiest thing for automation.

Roper hopes a decision on whether to transition Perdix to the Air Force could come next year.

Marine Boats

Another program for SCO comes from the Marine Corps. Like Perdix and the use of flare dispensers, it seeks to take existing assets and add onto them. In this case, the design is a kit which can be attached to existing small boats used by the Marines for moving supplies from ship to shore.

The ship guides itself autonomously to the beach and lands itself there, allowing Marines to run to it and grab supplies. After the ship is emptied, the kit turns the ship from a supply vessel into a coast surveillance vessel, which is able to travel along the coast and give Marines an ISR asset on the water.

"You could imagine this could be a big game changer for the way we do ship-to-shore operations," Roper said. "Instead of having land as a single mass unit, which could be vulnerable – that’s a lucrative target -- you can now break up. And now you’re a harder target set. And now the things that landed aren’t just a transport, they can be an aid to e mission."

Roper said the Marines started at a "lukewarm" level but after seeing what the technology can do are now driving the experiments forward with new ideas while the SCO continues to fund the project. Roper said he expects another two years of development and testing will occur, and then "I wouldn’t be surprised" if the program transitions fully to the Marines.

In fact, the kit approach is one that Roper feels positive about as an overall strategy, noting similar programs are in the works for the Navy. After all, it can add capabilities to existing platforms without needing massive new programs of record that involve bending steel.

"The kit approach -- they can experiment with it, they can buy a set of kits and if they end up not liking it you can just go put it on the shelf and they have an option for the future," Roper said.