WASHINGTON — The Strategic Capabilities Office believes it can upgrade the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) weapon to allow it to strike moving targets on both land and water, Pentagon officials announced Friday.
The program is under the purview of the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), which has also apparently advanced swarming drone technologies for both the air and sea domains, although details on just what that advancement is remains unclear.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' forum on the third offset, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was the first to mention the ATACMS upgrade.
"By integrating an existing seeker onto the front of the missile, they're enabling it to hit moving targets, both on land and at sea," Carter said. "With this capability, what was previously an Army surface-to-surface missile system can project power from coastal locations up to 300 kilometers into the maritime domain."
ATACMS is a long-range, surface-to-surface munition. Primarily used by the US Army, other customers include South Korea, Greece, Bahrain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, according to a Lockheed Martin fact sheet, which also claims 3,700 ATACMS missiles have been produced.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, later told reporters that the development is still in the experimental phase; "so what I think we will presumably put into the [fiscal 2018] budget is the early stage experimentation, the prototyping," he said.
William Roper, the SCO head, clarified that the program has yet to be tested — but said he expects the upgrade, which involves adding a seeker to the missile, should be a fairly easy one.
"I think you can all imagine we’re very likely to succeed on this because we have all the technologies on hand and it’s just a question of if we’re lucky and they’ll fit together, Frankenstein-style, or whether there is some peculiarity of the missile that makes integrating a seeker on it difficult," Roper told reporters.
He added that the program has been underway for more than a year and is probably still a year away from testing. How much that testing costs will depend on how many live shots the Army desires, Roper noted. He also acknowledged that the idea for the program was partly related to concerns about using weapons in GPS-denied locations.
"Right now, GPS is a singular option for many of our weapons. In the future I want to try and make every weapon have multiple options to get to the end game, and having a seeker is a secondary way to do that aside from GPS," he said.
For several years, the Pentagon has emphasized swarming capabilities for unmanned systems as a major technological step forward. The SCO has focused on the technology, in part through its Perdix program, which features small, swarming unmanned systems launched from a fighter jet.
As part of his speech, Carter teased a breakthrough in SCO’s research into swarming unmanned systems.
"As some of you know, I created SCO in 2012 when I was deputy secretary of defense, and earlier this year, I lifted the veil on several of its projects that we’re investing in, such as the arsenal plane, a new anti-ship capability for the SM-6 missile, and swarming drones on the sea and in the air," Carter said in his speech. "In fact, this technology took a large step forward this week. You’ll be hearing more about it in the months to come."
Kendall declined to comment further, as did a Pentagon spokesman. Roper himself described the swarming announcement as a "big step," but said it is a "domain agnostic" development.
But in his speech, Roper gave a hint as to why they may be staying mum at the moment. Asked how to deal with adversaries that are already trying to offset the third offset, Roper said the answer was simple — don’t let them know everything that is going on.
"You just don’t talk about your best capabilities, plain and simple. So one of the things we have to remember, which we did well in the Cold War, is having a good balance about the capabilities we show to the world for deterrence" versus what is kept hidden, he said. "We are keeping our best ideas behind the door, and probably always will, because what we owe to our future operators is an unfair fight."
That is in comparison for why Carter decided to bring the ATACMS program, still in a fairly early stage, to light. With the Army program, Roper noted that several top officials, including Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and US Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris had expressed the belief that the Army need to be able to provide cross-domain fires in the future.
"We thought enough senior leaders [were] saying this [so] it’s time to show this isn’t just a theoretical idea," Roper said. "It’s something we can potentially get to quickly with what we already have."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.