Once-Secret Pentagon Agency Asks Industry to Help Find New Ideas

  • Strategic Capabilities Office seeks new uses for old weapons
  • Carter wants the agency to get $902 million in seed money

A recently declassified Pentagon office that gives the military services seed money to test new ways of employing existing weapons, platforms and sensors plans to issue a call to the defense industry for new ideas.

It will be the Strategic Capabilities Office’s first major attempt to enlist industry input since it was set up in 2012 and then declassified in February by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, its director, Will Roper, told reporters Monday at his suburban Virginia headquarters.

Carter’s proposed defense budget for fiscal 2017 includes $902 million for the Strategic Capabilities Office, up from $469 million enacted this year and $171 million in fiscal 2015. The Defense Department has highlighted its work helping the Army convert howitzers into potential antimissile systems, the Air Force with micro-drones that might be dispensed from F-16 fighters and the Navy with revamping Raytheon Co.’s SM-6 air defense missile into a ship-killer.

The agency’s work is currently focused on the Pentagon’s rebalance of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, according to budget documents, including protecting U.S. bases from missile attack. Roper said the agency -- with a core of six full-time employees, including him, and about 20 support contractors -- has assisted the services in moving technologies from the experimental, prototype test phase to budgeted programs in five or six instances, all of them classified. The new effort to “repurpose” the SM-6 is the first unclassified example, he said.

Third Eye, Sea Dragon

Citing the goal of moving “beyond the boundaries,” Roper said his office works with the military services to experiment. “That’s exactly how the SM-6 was funded,” and the Navy will now use its own money to carry out the program. “All they needed was kick-starter funding” to help turn the missile into a “dual threat,” Roper said.

The agency is bankrolling projects with exotic names reminiscent of James Bond villains, such as Sea Mob, Third Eye, Strike Ex, Sea Stalker and Sea Dragon. There’s also a more mundane project, known simply as “MK-48 Heavyweight Torpedo Prototype,” to improve that weapon’s propulsion.

Many of the projects remain secret, Roper said, because the agency wants “to have our best tricks behind the door.”

“We are looking for things we can go put our hands on today” and “we need a strategic aspect,” such as whether it creates doubt in a potential adversary’s mind or has the potential to impose additional costs to counter the weapon, he said.

There are some clues in budget documents. Although Roper didn’t want to discuss “Sea Dragon,” the documents show the agency is spending $150 million on it, including for a second phase of underwater testing and an initial system demonstration this year, with a full-system demonstration in 2019. It’s described as “a cost-effective disruptive offensive capability” that integrates “an exiting weapon system with an existing Navy platform.”

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