Little Known Pentagon Office Key to U.S. Military Competition with China, Russia

February 2, 2016 6:28 PM
A test shot of an electromagnetic railgun. US Navy Photo
A test shot of an electromagnetic railgun. US Navy Photo

A little publicized Pentagon office tasked with tweaking existing U.S. military capabilities for new roles and missions is a key player in the Department of Defense effort to stay ahead of Russian and Chinese weapon programs.

“[Russia and China] are developing weapons and ways of war that seek to achieve their objectives rapidly, before they hope we can respond. Because of this, and because of their actions to date – from Ukraine to the South China Sea – DoD has elevated their importance in our defense planning and budgeting,” Secretary of State Ash Carter said in a speech on Tuesday previewing Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

In the speech Carter singled out the work of the Strategic Capabilities Office to “confound potential opponents” and held up the SCO (pronounced SkOh) as a key component of future U.S. military technology development.

The mandate for the SCO – headed by Oxford University trained physicist William Roper who studied string theory before moving to the Defense Department – is speed.

The office mixes and matches weapons and systems across the services to develop new capabilities designed to counter high-end capabilities of adversaries.

“Unlike technology-driven organizations — which create wholly new things — SCO reimagines existing DoD, intelligence or commercial capabilities,” according to a description of the office in a Tuesday statement provided to USNI News.
“This is accomplished via applications to new mission areas, integration with other assets, or incorporation of new commercial technologies. In this way, SCO seeks to keep current capabilities viable for as long as possible by changing how they are used and, thus, undermine adversary attempts to counter them.”

Some of those efforts to date include: Firing an experimental hypersonic round from a 20 year-old Army artillery piece extending its range, high-speed drones launched from the back of fighters, installing smartphone-sized cameras on Small Diameter Bombs to improve targeting and loading a legacy military airframe with new weapons and sensors creating a so-called “arsenal plane,” according to Carter.

The office also has “the rare virtue of rapid development and the even rarer virtue of keeping current capabilities viable for as long as possible. So it’s good for both troops and taxpayers alike,” Carter said in his speech.

Another SCO project is using hyper velocity projectile meant for the service’s planned electromagnetic railgun and employ it the five-inch guns of the Navy’s guided missile cruisers and destroyers. The SCO spin on the program will have the projectiles fired from the guns be used as a potential cruise and ballistic missile defense (BMD).

Railguns are one of several high technology systems that will be part of the third offset strategy – the Pentagon’s push to create more military technology daylight between the U.S. and its adversaries – and modifications of the program for other services as its developed by the Navy are part of the SCO’s mandate.

In that role, exemplified by the railgun work, SCO “is going to be the primary conduit for the third offset strategy,” one defense official told USNI News on Monday.

While the Pentagon is awash with research and development organizations that focus on proving science and technology concept, like DARPA or the Office of Naval Research, SCO has a keenly operational focus to pull successful programs out to U.S. forces.

Philosophically, the SCO rooted in Pentagon Cold War efforts to pay close attention to the former Soviet Union’s military technology developments and craft counters to what the Soviets were developing and fielding.

The SCO was created in 2012 to perform similar work to counter Chinese capabilities and keep China guessing on which direction U.S. military research and development was progressing.

One source familiar with the office described the SCO as a Pentagon “strategic communications” tool focused on Beijing.

Since its inception SCO has, “grown from this little hobby shop into this major defense organization,” a source familiar with the organization told USNI News.
“They have money and can spend it without a lot of red tape.”

Now SCO and other DoD Pentagon arms tasked with developing new technology will be part of a $71.4 billion research and development push for high-end war fighting capabilities as part of the FY 2017 budget, Carter announced as part of his budget preview.

“In our budget, our plans, our capabilities, and our actions, we must demonstrate to potential foes that if they start a war, we have the capability to win. Because a force that can deter conflict must show that it can dominate a conflict,” he said.
“In this context, Russia and China are our most stressing competitors.”

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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