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USAF nominee leaves future of Pentagon innovation office in doubt

A key figure in the Obama administration's defence innovation strategy organized under the Third Offset initiative will lead the US Air Force’s acquisition office, leaving the future of the Strategic Capabilities Office in limbo.

Will Roper is founding director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, a cornerstone of the Third Offset initiative, which envisions a modern arsenal of swarming unmanned air vehicles, hypersonic weapons and autonomous systems. Unlike the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or the service research laboratories, the SCO would modernize existing platforms in the DOD’s inventory and rapidly develop new technologies. In 2016, Defense secretary Ashton Carter unveiled the “arsenal plane” concept, that would turn an older DOD aircraft into a flying launch pad for multiple conventional payloads.

But even after revealing the arsenal plane idea, the DOD and SCO kept a lid on these activities. In one exception, Roper himself opened up to reporters at DARPA headquarters outside Washington, where he showed off a small UAV called Perdix. Roper also spotlighted Perdix in a “60 Minutes” interview, which showed swarms of the palm-sized, autonomous UAVs.

Roper’s appointment could mean a jolt of innovation for the USAF’s acquisition office, which has not had a civilian in the assistance secretary position since Bill LaPlante left in 2015.

But that still leaves the future of the SCO up in the air. It’s unclear whether a new SCO director would find many allies in the Pentagon today. New DOD leadership under the Trump administration, including deputy defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, has not touted the Third Offset as vocally as Carter or former deputy secretary of Defense Bob Work.

Like any holdover from the previous administration, the SCO may already be tainted as an Obama era initiative, making the office an easy target for Trump’s chopping block. The president’s new national security strategy emphasized protecting the homeland and made no specific mention of the third offset, though the strategy does outline the need to rapidly field technology and break away from an “archaic [research and development] process to an approach that rewards rapid fielding and risk taking.”

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