On its surface, the situation does seem discouraging. The director of the Strategic Capabilities Office is abruptly out, less than a year on the job, reportedly unhappy with the SCO’s future. The Pentagon’s top technology expert then moves SCO under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — four levels down from where it once lived under former Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The explanation from Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, seemed equally discouraging. In a nutshell, it ate up too much time.
So how bad is it? Are skeptics correct, including the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry, when they argue that the move could create layers of extra bureaucracy — the very thing SCO is meant to diminish? Is this an example of walking away from a driver of change?
One could argue it’s both of those things. Or maybe one could argue it’s a smart decision that will help SCO expand.
The truth is that Griffin is right. Placement of an office toward the top echelon at the Pentagon — even under the secretary as SCO once was — doesn’t prompt success. It might, in fact, do the opposite, causing the office to get lost amid higher, near-term priorities and demands, actually slowed down by the lack of concentrated attention.
And what is gained? The ability to say the SCO director reports direct to the secretary or (more recently) the R&E head, and perhaps the access needed to better sell an idea or concept. But would that get lost at DARPA — an agency that has arguably the best track record at the Department of Defense in pushing big ideas, in getting funding to experiment and in convincing services to change the old way of doing things?
And if the world has learned nothing else from Silicon Valley success stories, it’s that success breeds success. Enable the big ideas to fester by surrounding them by a lot of the big thinkers. With all due respect to the five-sided box, perhaps moving outside those walls offers more opportunity to come at a problem in a different way.
Maybe SCO did need to directly report to the defense secretary in its earlier years. Created in 2012, the office was expected to do things differently — to tackle requirements in new ways, combining and modifying existing systems along the way. That was a foreign concept that could have withered on the vine nearly a decade ago. That’s probably why Carter shifted SCO to his direct purview when he became secretary.
His endorsement mattered. SCO also suited his agenda to drive more innovation into the Pentagon — a priority that also spurred him to pull the newly created Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (today just DIU) under him a few years later.
But the logic behind those moves rested at least in part in a desire to exude legitimacy and drive buy-in. We’re now at a place where the DoD is on board with innovative ideas, generally, but still struggles to understand how to execute those ideas and how to adapt to change. Entities like SCO and DIU and DARPA can help them along in that — but not when they’re so tightly integrated into the larger machine.
There’s been a tendency in the last few years to hold sacred these pockets of innovation happening in and around the Pentagon as if they’re fragile. Dare to shift the approach or strategy, and be chastised for standing in the way of big ideas.
But true innovation won’t come form pet projects.
In April, I wrote about Jason, the independent group of scientists that has advised the Pentagon for about six decades on matters of science and technology. When Jason apparently lost its contract with the Department of Defense, many objected; they said it was part of a larger trend by federal agencies to limit independent scientific and technical advice.
What I said then about Jason I will say again here about SCO: Let’s hope it’s instead a sign of a productive effort to consolidate expertise to help the DoD become smarter about innovation.