Why is a House panel trying to get rid of one of DoD’s most successful offices?

Do you know what the Defense Department loves right now? Innovation.

It has the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, the Defense Innovation Board, multiple rapid capabilities offices and the granddaddy of all innovation, DARPA. All those organizations are aimed at making the department more futuristic and more like the hoodie-wearing tech bros out in Silicon Valley.

Congress has been happy to oblige in DoD’s hunt for innovation, but this year one subcommittee wants to shutter one of the Pentagon’s innovation hubs.

The Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) has been modifying DoD’s state-of-the-art toys since 2012. The office works on swarming drones, augmented reality and every other new technology coming to light.

Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Guenther, right, of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, explains the Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle concept to then-Strategic Capabilities Office Director William Roper, left, using a small-scale model at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland on Jan. 10, 2017.

So why is the House Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee suggesting the “elimination or transfer of the functions of the Strategic Capabilities Office to another organization or element of” DoD by March, 2019?

Susanna Blume, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is baffled by the suggestion.

“SCO has a very specific mandate. Their thing is they take existing technologies and figure out how to use them in different ways,” Blume said. “The SCO magic isn’t something that’s going to work for the DoD acquisition enterprise as a whole nor should it. But you also don’t want to divest that capability because it’s really useful to have a group of really smart people thinking about different applications for existing technologies.”

But a House Armed Services Committee aide said the subcommittee wants DoD to scale SCO’s “magic” to broader applications, which is why it’s pushing to downgrade the office.

“This is designed to think about the ‘What’s next’ aspect of SCO and to think about also taking what SCO has done in terms of culture and making sure that is spread across the services. That’s in conjunction with the other transaction authorities (OTA) that have been provided,” the aide said.

OTAs are agreements that circumvent the defense acquisition regulations resulting in faster acquisition with fewer rules businesses have to follow.

The aide said its still up for debate whether SCO’s culture, speed and innovation can be broadened to DoD acquisition as a whole.

Blume says expecting SCO’s agility to permeate into all of DoD is a fool’s errand.

“SCO doesn’t scale … You can’t apply that to the DoD acquisition enterprise writ large because someone has to develop the new stuff from scratch. The reason SCO is so agile is because they are working with systems where the vast majority of the technological risk has already been retired. But you can’t apply that to the parts of the acquisition enterprise that are in charge of retiring all that technological risk in the first place,” Blume said.

But there may be other reasons the subcommittee wants to get rid of SCO. As of February 1, the Pentagon acquisition office was split in half. Half of the office went to the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, the other half went to the undersecretary of research and engineering.

The research and engineering office is supposed to be able to break free of the day to day acquisition issues and focus purely on building new technologies.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said this week that Research and Engineering Undersecretary Michael Griffin is working on a report of 10 technical domains of what the tests are between now and 2023 DoD must conduct to achieve capability in the next decade.

“The reason that’s so important is it informs our [program objective memorandum (POM)] 2020 funding process,” Shanahan said. “That POM 2020 funding process is where we start to consolidate activities and do the prioritization [of programs].”

Those include roadmaps for hypersonics and other technologies.

POMs explain how the services and the department intend to spend the money they have been allocated.

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