WASHINGTON — When US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter unveiled his 2017 budget plan in a February speech, he also pulled the curtain back on a secretive, only-whispered-about office located in the same building as the Pentagon's mad-science office DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Suddenly out in the light, the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) and its director, William Roper, began a process of reaching out both to the public and industry to begin gathering ideas and proposals for new technologies that can help the Pentagon with its near-term requirements.
Now, as the Pentagon is formulating its 2018 budget proposal, Roper is preparing to make a decision on what programs he wants to move forward with in the coming year.
"August is our busiest month because it's really the time you have to decide out of all the ideas you've been working on, what is still the front-runner, and which ones have picked up baggage along the way," Roper said. "This is sort of the final round of what ideas go forward or not. … The next couple of weeks will determine what we do for the next few years"
Although they share some DNA, the SCO’s mission is different from that of DARPA. Whereas the latter is focused on finding and prototyping the game-changing technologies for the future fight, the SCO is trying to understand current, existent needs and address them in new ways.
The most public example of an SCO project is the Standard Missile 6, which Roper’s office helped turn from a defensive weapon into a ship-killing one. It’s about taking current capabilities that exist and finding new ways to utilize them.
Ben FitzGerald, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security, said that while the SCO is technology-focused, it is better to think of Roper’s team as a strategy office instead of an acquisition hub.
"It’s interesting to me the role that SCO is playing conceptually in the Pentagon now, which to me has all the hallmarks of the Office of Net Assessment in prior eras," FitzGerald said.
"You have a small team with a highly empowered guy-with-the-answers in charge of it. We don’t know exactly what they’re doing, but it gives us hope, and, to the extent our adversaries know about it, gives them pause. I think that is the role the SCO is playing more than any other organization in the Department of Defense right now."
Roper himself acknowledged that role, saying: "For us to really help industry, we have to be very good strategists and analysts here."
"It’s too much to ask a great engineer to also be a good strategist," Roper added. "The resident expertise is always going to be with the person who made it. We’re going to be working with great engineers, and what we can give to them is the context for which it will be used."
That concept ties into how the SCO is working with industry and developing ideas forward.
When Roper first sat down with reporters in May, he said he was looking forward to hearing more from industry now that his office was more public. That included a Broad Area Announcement on a government contracting website actively soliciting information on new programs and ideas from both the defense industry and non-traditional suppliers.
The office has seen a lot of ideas as a result, Roper said, but noted that companies initially were coming to him with traditional pitches geared toward hitting a requirement — a piece of technology that would fit a specific mission set.
Roper said that’s not what he wants to see. Instead, he wants to know about a piece of technology, learn what it can and can’t do, and then guide industry toward a mission set or need that the SCO, and its partners in the military services, feel they need to fill.
"We have been sorting through the submissions and will be ready to make some decisions on them soon, but they are decisions that will be made in the SCO context — a piece of technology applied to the mission we think it’s most useful for," Roper said.
Roper added that the office does the same internally with the Pentagon, operating a "Match.mil" to create cross-service connections among people who are working on similar technologies.
It is widely expected that Carter will be replaced by the next president when they take office in January. Even if Carter is asked to stay on for the near-term, however, there is no guarantee a new administration will look at the SCO’s budget and not decide it could be better spent elsewhere.
Asked whether he was concerned about the future of his office, Roper expressed cautious optimism.
"It’ll be interesting to see. I would like to think, and I do think it’s true, that we have now become a strategic partner for the services," he said. "I would think if an administration came in and they were thinking about whether something was valuable or not, the first thing [they] would want to know is: If it wasn’t here, who would be upset? And if no one is upset then you have a good case to say: ‘Why is it here?’ "
Which is why the fact the SCO has managed to get programs up and running in conjunction with the services is important — not just because of the technology itself but because it creates what Roper hopes is support among the services for his office. That SCO is willing to use its budget to get programs up to the point of operational testing, which means services do not have to spend their own research and development funds on these programs at the riskiest stage of their development.
FitzGerald compares the SCO to the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) office, which got off to a slow start in its first year and was turned into a direct report to Carter in order to jump-start its programs.
"The SCO has benefited from a longer ramp-up period than the DIUx has had, so it has successes it can make its case off of," FitzGerald said. But, he noted, the mission sets are different for the two organizations.
"DIUx isn’t there to build things. They are there to connect interesting tech companies with important defense problems, whereas SCO is trying to fuse operational concept, war fighting need, new technologies, and get that into the services," FitzGerald said. "They are very different organizations with different missions and different factors for success."
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.