The Department of Defense's Strategic Capabilities Office — where scientists and engineers take military systems that do one thing and make them do something completely different — is a near-term asset.
In the scheme of third offset strategic technologies, the Defense Department’s Strategic Capabilities Office — where scientists and engineers take military systems that do one thing and make them do something completely different — is a near-term asset, SCO Director Will Roper says.
A priority focus of tech-centered and other defense agencies, the third offset strategy seeks to combine advanced technology and new operational concepts and organizational constructs to maintain U.S. military dominance against major competitors worldwide.
Artist’s concept of the Strategic Capabilities Office’s arsenal plane
Speaking during a recent third offset conference here at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Roper explained that the way SCO keeps adversaries from offsetting the department’s offset is simple: “You just don't talk about your best capabilities.”
The Best Ideas
“One of the things we're going to have to remember — and that we did quite well in the Cold War — is to [maintain] a good balance between the capabilities that we show to the world for deterrence versus those that we keep behind the door for warfighting overmatch,” Roper said.
The second tenet is, that you show a capability that has promise, he added.
“You've got to expect the great powers, unlike lessor countries or terrorist groups, are going to be able to emulate that capability and potentially implement it, even if their operators aren't as good as ours,” Roper said.
SCO has wrestled with this balance since then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter established the office 2012, Roper said, noting that SCO keeps its best ideas “behind the door and probably always will because what we owe to our future operators is an unfair fight.”
The Arkansas Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion fired an Army Tactical Missile System
Now as the defense secretary, over the past year Carter has announced a few SCO technology mashups — earlier this year the arsenal plane, a new anti-ship capability for the SM-6 missile and swarming drones on the sea and in the air — and most recently SCO’s project to develop a cross-domain capability for the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATacMS.
“By integrating an existing seeker onto the front of the missile,” Carter said in his remarks at the CSIS third offset conference, “[SCO is] enabling it to hit moving targets, both on land and at sea. With this capability, what was previously an Army surface-to-surface missile system can project power from coastal locations up to 300 kilometers [186 miles] into the maritime domain.”
As Roper explained, “doing that seeker integration and fielding it is not a very difficult project for an office like SCO working with the Army. But if you're an adversary you now have a much more complicated thing to plan against. You're not just planning against maritime capabilities and air capabilities threatening your naval assets, you now have to worry about targeting coming from land.”
The more that domains blur, he added, the more SCO can create permutations for adversaries that impose a disproportionate burden for them to train for.
“Wherever we can put a burden that comes down to the human level, I think we get an immediate advantage in the near-term, and SCO is a near-term part of the offset,” Roper said.
Fighting in the Information Age
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and others who are moving the third offset forward say the initial technology vector will focus on data-intense automation and artificial intelligence, or AI, but Roper says the department needs to catch up with a world that’s data-centric rather than device-specific.
“In that way [the department] is kind of a decade behind the time. We're in a world that is data-centric and data is going to be the fundamental fuel for national security into the foreseeable future,” Roper said.
Industry covets data, he added.
“Data is the thing you use to build the next product line to sell to us [and] we still have a very antiquated view of it. We're not safeguarding, stockpiling our data and then turning it into a new pattern of life, new algorithms, new learning machines that think fast or see quicker, helping us respond better. That's one thing that's going to have to change,” Roper said.
DoD needs to transition from a computer-centric department to a data-centric department and fight in the information age, Roper said.
Decisions at Machine Speeds
DoD must come to grips, he added, with the fact that many sources of information that will be best for the department will not be government sources.
“It's going to be the world of sensing around us, and almost always when an event happens in the world, we'll go back in the aftermath and find that some person at the right place took a picture and it was on Instagram and we could have known [about it] but it was one thing in the midst of many,” Roper said.
That seems like a problem a machine could sort out if the department put the time and effort into it, he added, and a machine will sort it out much faster than a person can.
“We’re going to have to smartly let some of the reins go without letting strategic effects go, and I don't see that as an impossible design challenge,” Roper said.
“I could see us building simple AI systems that perform simple tasks in a predictable way — not in a nondeterministic way, as if they had personalities — that would enable us to make decisions quicker without putting us on a dangerous slope,” he said, referring to Carter’s pledge this year that people always would be in the loop of DoD autonomous systems, especially weapon systems.
“The earlier we start building these prototypes in that space, where we're following current data science,” Roper added, “we'll finally be turning the page on what the offset will become, which is a very data-centric approach to national security.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)