Director of innovative DoD office lobbies for make or break acquisition

The director of one of the Defense Department’s fastest rising offices is advocating for more of a make or break kind of acquisition for some weapons programs.

DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office has had a “meteoric” rise within the department, said the office’s director William Roper. In just four years SCO has grown from an experimental shop to an office that is slated to receive $900 million in 2017.

Roper said during a July 13 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the office’s success came from the business culture fostered by how it’s funded.

SCO, which was created to reimagine existing technologies for new uses, gets its funding based on the projects it fields.

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“If we don’t field it, it doesn’t count,” Roper said. The office itself runs on what he called a lean $60 million. The rest of the funds are dedicated to specific projects the office is working on.

Basically, if SCO doesn’t come up with good ideas and doesn’t find a way to get them off the ground then it does not get funding.

Roper said his office is now laser-focused on 2018 and that DoD could benefit from that more business-like approach.

Part of the success of the office is its philosophy behind rigid requirements. Most programs of record have requirements dictating attributes, cost and schedule, but also holding the program to standards that may not be beneficial to the program, Roper said.

Roper said a requirement is a number that can’t be negotiated, but at times DoD loses out with that way of thinking.

For example, if DoD makes a requirement that a vehicle needs to go 500 mph, there is no wiggle room on that number. Roper is suggesting at times an engineer may say, “I can make this vehicle go only 480 mph, but it will save you a lot of money.”

Roper said DoD needs to be open to those kind of negotiations in the acquisition system. He suggests modernizing requirements to “do the most good.”

To do that, DoD’s culture needs to change. One of the advantages Roper said he has in this realm is the ability to prototype things more.

Right now is a prime time because everyone from DoD to Congress to industry is convinced that the Pentagon needs to prototype more, so it’s likely to actually happen.

The prototyping stage gives projects and programs an area to fail safely and without ridicule. It also gives overseers of the program a chance to evaluate the feasibility of the requirements.

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When House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) began putting together the 2017 defense authorization bill, he noted that prototyping would be on the agenda.

“One goal I have this year is to encourage more experimentation and prototyping,” Thornberry said in January. Experimentation “encourages innovative thinking, not just in developing the technology, but in how you use it. It helps ensure there is mature technology before you start production so that you don’t have those unexpected surprises. It reduces the odds that you are going to spend a lot of money on a program of record that you then have to cancel and have it all wasted.”

The House version of the bill has provisions for prototyping, prototyping oversight and technology maturation.

SCO is branching out its idea factory past DoD and the services. The office put out a call to industry for proposals on “novel concepts in the following focus areas: autonomy, command and control, cyber, sensors and weapon technologies,” the June 17 announcement reads.

Roper said his office has received nearly 1,000 submissions already, some by companies that are not known for working with DoD.