Selva: SCO Needs to Support Combatant Commanders

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva speaks at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C., on June 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of GW's Project for Media and National Security.

The Joint Staff has jumped into an ongoing debate over where the Pentagon’s secretive Strategic Capabilities Office should sit, arguing that wherever the research group lands, its key purpose should be to continue supporting warfighters in the field.

The SCO was created in 2012 to reimagine how government and commercial technology could be used in “often unexpected and game-changing” ways, according to the Defense Department. It requested a $1.3 billion budget in fiscal 2020, and alumni include Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition executive.

On June 16, Inside Defense reported Pentagon research chief Mike Griffin ousted Strategic Capabilities Office Director Chris Shank last week. Griffin believes the SCO should be part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a move opposed by lawmakers, and officials from US Special Operations Command, US Indo-Pacific Command, US European Command, and the Joint Staff.

But the Joint Staff’s opinion comes with a caveat, according to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva.

“‘Non-concur is a strong word, and we use it only guardedly,” he said at a June 18 Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Though Army Lt. Gen. Anthony Ierardi, the Joint Staff’s director for force structure, resources, and assessment, issued a May 20 memo disagreeing with a request to shift the SCO into DARPA, according to Inside Defense, Selva said the feeling is echoed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“It was a conditional question to … [the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for] Research and Engineering on how they intended to make sure that the connections between the Strategic Capabilities Office and the combatant commanders remained as intact as possible,” Selva said. “It wasn’t a hard ‘no.’ … The condition was, help us understand that process.”

Pentagon leaders worried that, depending on how DARPA may absorb the SCO, its connection to regional military leaders would be severed. Officials are now working through how combatant commanders could choose specific experiments and capabilities they’d like to partner on with the SCO, as well as how to keep those efforts’ funding intact.

“Whether or not it resides under DARPA or under R&D as an independent organization is an interesting organizational argument,” Selva said. “I don’t actually want to engage in that argument. What I want to make sure of is that the relatively modest funding stream that’s allowed SCO to do some very, very compelling experiments continues, and that it is the combatant commanders that will have access to that funding stream to solve problems they believe exist.”

Lawmakers are looking to protect the office as well. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees both included provisions in their 2020 defense policy bills blocking DOD from transferring the SCO to another part of the department until it offers Congress a plan for doing so and assesses the move’s impact on troops.

Despite national leaders’ defense of the office, questions remain about its efficiency and purpose. House defense authorizers suggested shutting down the office in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, and told DOD to report back on the feasibility of eliminating the office. Senate defense authorizers also want to yank $50 million from underperforming SCO initiatives next year.

“The committee notes that the Strategic Capabilities Office was established to support rapid development, prototyping, and deployment of operational capabilities to meet emerging threats in the US Indo-Pacific area of responsibility,” SASC said in a legislative report. “Since then, the SCO has drifted from its original purpose and has seen significant budget growth not commensurate with its transition success and has undertaken projects with questionable technical merit and operational utility.”