Pentagon Taking a More Serious Look at Off-the-Shelf Technology

By Sandra I. Erwin
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work holds a railgun projectile in front of the railgun at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Dahlgren. Va., April 30, 2015. With him, from left, are William Roper, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Mike Till, Dahlgren engagement systems department head.

It seems rather straightforward: Buy technology that is already available rather than spend money reinventing the wheel.

For the Pentagon, this has been easier said than done. The Defense Department’s top leadership has made a big push to accelerate innovation in weapons programs by injecting fresh technology from the commercial world. But parlaying that credo into action has been difficult.

In search of a better way to insert off-the-shelf technology into military weapon systems is the Strategic Capabilities Office. The four-year-old organization, known as SCO, has set about to find mature technologies that can be matched with existing Pentagon programs and tweaked to produce “transformational” results at much lower cost than traditional developed-from-scratch defense projects. 

The SCO is a rising star in the Pentagon procurement galaxy. It started out with a $50 million budget and in fiscal year 2017 the Pentagon requested $890 million. Congress then increased the request to $907 million.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work is a fan. The SCO now oversees 26 projects, six of which have transitioned to a service program. “That is a really good percentage. And I expect that percentage to go up,” he told reporters. 

The office’s status grew on the heels of high-profile successes, such as figuring out a low-cost approach to convert the Navy’s surface-to-air SM-6 missile into a supersonic, long-range anti-ship missile. It also sponsored a project to convert a Cold War-era Army ground-attack missile into a weapon that could take down ships at sea.

The SCO is located in Arlington, Virginia, in the same building that houses the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Despite the proximity, the two agencies have drastically different philosophies. “SCO is a relatively small organization, and we don't want it to become a DARPA,” Work said. A better descriptor would be a “skunk works, that's really fast that does demonstrations fast,” he said. “So we just got to make sure that we don't overwhelm SCO.”

Nine companies recently were invited to pitch technologies to the SCO Director Will Roper. The Nov. 14 meeting was organized by the National Defense Industrial Association.

“We set it up like speed dating,” said Ellen Lord, president and CEO of Textron Systems and vice chair of the NDIA board of directors. 

In addition to Textron, the other companies that presented ideas to the SCO included a mix of traditional defense contractors and commercial companies: General Atomics, Leidos, Liquid Robotics, Allegheny Technologies, Endeavor Robotics, Inertial Labs, Creative Micro Systems, Battelle and Hydronalix.

Lord said she and other executives have been impressed by SCO’s approach. Contractors typically come in with an idea and a strategy for how to use it, she said, whereas Roper is more interested in “technology readiness levels.” His message to contractors is, “tell me what you can do, and we are going to work out the strategy at SCO to figure out how it can be implemented quickly.”

The SCO needs an “inventory of what’s out there, and what can be done with a modest investment to give you capability,” said Lord. The outreach is welcomed by many contractors who have seen the dialogue with the Defense Department “fall apart in Washington.” NDIA served as a neutral party, to ensure that there was no favoritism, she said. “But don’t think for a minute the government didn’t bring their lawyers. That’s to be expected. And that’s good, so it’s all transparent.”

The association sought a mix of large, medium and small firms “that we felt had the most to offer,” said Frank Michael, NDIA vice president of business development.

A Defense Department spokesperson said SCO has “frequent engagements with many defense-related organizations.” The meeting with NDIA-selected companies was to “discuss new missions that their systems and concepts could potentially address.”

Bob Lautrup, representing one of the commercial firms that pitched its products to the SCO, said he found it refreshing that the Defense Department “would reach out to a startup.” 

Lautrup is executive vice president and partner of Hydronalix Inc., a manufacturer of unmanned autonomous watercraft. “To me, this indicates that the secretary, himself, realizes that technology from startups is a necessary part of finding affordable solutions to modernize our defense,” he told National Defense.   

He found that Roper “really understands technology, and knows what would be transformational,” Lautrup said. “He is interested in cost, but also in a different approach to solving problems. If we do a few tweaks we could have something that could be useful” for the armed forces. 

Executives from materials manufacturer Allegheny Technologies Inc. spoke to Roper about the potential applications of advanced materials like titanium alloys and specialty steels that were developed for commercial aerospace. 

“Many of these materials can be repurposed for DoD needs,” said Terrence Hartford, vice president of Allegheny Technologies’ defense business. 

Thomas J. Sereno, vice president of Leidos, said he found the meeting with Roper “very informative.” The SCO director, he said, was “forthcoming on his views of emerging technologies and how they could be used to meet national security needs.”

It is unclear how the SCO will fare in the Trump administration. Analysts predict these initiatives will continue as Congress keeps pressing the Defense Department to step up innovation efforts. 

It also remains to be seen whether the SCO culture permeates defense procurement at large. “What we haven’t seen is a fundamentally different approach to generate military advantage, and that’s what we need,” said Ben FitzGerald, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The Pentagon consistently struggles with the “insertion of commercial technology,” he said at a CNAS panel discussion.

William Greenwalt, a defense acquisition expert who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, agrees. “Someone in DoD has to understand how commercial companies think,” he said. “If they are the ones that have the technology, then we have to change how we think.”

Topics: Acquisition, Acquisition Programs, Budget, Defense Department

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