CAPITOL HILL – Innovative Pentagon-level organizations such as the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are increasingly partnering with the Navy and other services as attention and money shifts away from wars in the Middle East and on to new ways of operating in a rapidly evolving environment, officials said Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
DARPA director Arati Prabhakar told senators at the hearing that her organization has partnerships with the services today that DARPA couldn’t arrange even at the beginning of the decade, due to a shift in focus.
The most recent example is the Sea Hunter, an unmanned ship DARPA commissioned last week. Prabhakar said the ship, previously called the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), is the world’s first ship that can leave a pier and navigate for thousands of miles, completing maritime missions without a single sailor onboard.
“What that means is it will be able to do some maritime missions for a tiny fraction of today’s operating cost, which is good,” she said.
“But even beyond that, this is the kind of new capability, this kind of unmanned ship, that now allows us to invent whole new ways to exercise influence across the vastness of the oceans.”
Despite the obvious benefits, though, she said the Navy was not interested in partnering with DARPA a few years ago, with the service’s resources – both people and money – focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, she said, Sea Hunter is just one of several partnerships with the Navy and the other services that cover all operational domains – from air to sea, ground to space, and even cyber and information warfare.
“At DARPA we see these partnerships as absolutely essential” to advancing unproven technologies into tools that can be fielded.
Similarly, SCO director William Roper told USNI News after the hearing that his office and the Navy are coordinating to move projects between various innovation offices based on the level of risk and reward – with the SCO handling only the high-risk, high-reward projects.
When the Navy decided to add an anti-ship capability to the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), “originally the idea came to us to work on it as a partnership,” Roper said. “We brought in some advanced technology that they could apply, but the application was fairly low-risk so they’re doing it,” he said of the Navy research and development community.
As for turning the Standard Missile-6 into an anti-ship missile, that project is “an example of a high-risk thing we funded because it wasn’t clear it was going to work, so we will fund it until it’s been proved out and then the Navy takes it.”
During the hearing, Roper said that, just as the SM-6 takes a defensive capability and turns it into an offensive one, the SCO is working with the Army, Navy and Air Force to string together offensive capabilities and make an ad hoc defensive network.
“Army howitzers, Navy projectiles and Air Force radars weren’t designed to be a defensive system. We’re partnering to Frankenstein these to a low-cost supersonic missile defense shield,” he said, with the Navy projectile being the guided Hyper Velocity Projectile meant for the electromagnetic railgun and the Mk 45 5-inch deck gun.
Roper said the SCO was not limited to developing weapons – it is currently working with the Marine Corps on a big data analytics project, being tested this week during the ongoing Balikatan Exercise in the Philippines.
As technology spreads down to the company or squad level – or even the individual Marine, in some cases – “you can imagine that all of these distributed systems that are going to be spread out over the battlefield are going to be producing data,” Roper said.
“That data is going to be pooled. … Understanding it, being able to give commanders that leading-edge decision authority, is going to be important. So the Marine Corps right now is doing experiments with us currently today in the Philippines in the Balikatan exercise, pulling in lots of information that supports that exercise and synthesizing it with commercial big data tools.”
Roper told USNI News after the hearing that the Marines are using only commercial tools or existing government-built tools “to help sort out large amounts of publicly available information to do things like marketing.” If they find that the Marines can do everything they need to do, then the Marines will have an idea of what they might want to buy going forward. If these existing tools are only a partial solution, then the SCO may coordinate with the Office of Naval Research or DARPA to find a better solution to the Marines’ data analytics needs.
Roper said the SCO is also working on upgrades to the Navy’s Mk 48 torpedo, but the details of that project are classified. He said he could not discuss other Navy-related projects the SCO is currently working on due to classification but noted that the SCO is spending more money on work for the Navy than any other service at the moment.