The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Veil of secrecy lifted on Pentagon office planning ‘Avatar’ fighters and drone swarms

The Pentagon released this unclassified video to The Washington Post that shows micro-drones being released from an F-16 fighter jet moving at 430 mph. (Video: Department of Defense)
Placeholder while article actions load

High over Alaska last summer, the Pentagon experimented with new, secret prototypes: Micro-drones that can be launched from the flare dispensers of moving F-16s and F/A-18 fighter jets. Canisters containing the tiny aircraft descended from the jets on parachutes before breaking open, allowing wings on each drone to swing out and catch the wind. Inch-wide propellers on the back provided propulsion as they found one another and created a swarm.

The experiment was run by the secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, a Pentagon organization launched in summer 2012 to figure out how to best counter growing strategic threats from China and Russia. The specifics of what the mini-drones can do are classified, but they could be used to confuse enemy forces and carry out surveillance missions using equipment that costs much less than full-sized unmanned aircraft. Video reviewed by The Washington Post shows the tiny aircraft, which weigh about a pound each, moving in packs and gaining situational awareness after sitting inert in the flare canisters.

SCO’s staff labored in the shadows since its inception, with virtually everything it did withheld from the American public. But the shroud of secrecy was lifted partially in recent weeks. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter for the first time disclosed last month the existence of some of the office’s projects while previewing his proposed 2017 budget. He called for $902 million in funding for SCO in 2017 — nearly twice what it received this year, and 18 times what it started with.

[Watch Perdix, the Pentagon’s secretive program dropping tiny drones from fighter jets]

Carter’s disclosures raised some questions in the Pentagon about whether he had revealed classified information while previewing his 2017 budget. But in a rare interview, the director of SCO said the secretary sought a green light to disclose snippets of the mini-drone experiment in Alaska and a few other programs as part of a broader effort to get the attention of potential adversaries.

“I have been in the classified, black world for my whole career, so all of this is new for me and I really wish I could go back,” said the director, William Roper, a physicist who previously worked in missile defense. “You can’t win wars if everything is outside the doors, but you can’t deter wars if everything is behind them.”

The story of SCO — pronounced “Skoh” — is one that underscores the Pentagon’s efforts to move beyond more than a decade of counterterrorism operations and combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to prepare for new strategic threats. The office initially called the Pentagon home, but was later moved a few miles away to a larger space in the same building in Virginia that houses the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), perhaps the Defense Department’s best known agency focused on futuristic technology.

But DARPA and SCO are different organizations with different missions, both Roper and DARPA officials said. DARPA, created during the Cold War in 1958, is focused on looking for ways to revolutionize military operations with new inventions and technology. It has an annual budget of about $3 billion. SCO is charged with creating new “trick plays” for the Pentagon through creativity and engineering, using old weapons, teaming existing equipment together or adding new commercial technology.

Roper, 36, compared the U.S. military to a top football team that has been closely studied for years by opponents who want to exploit potential weaknesses they have observed.

“Football teams – great football teams, dynasties – don’t throw out their playbook when that happens,” he said. “They say, ‘Alright, well, my opponents have optimized against what I do today, so I’ve got to get surprise and get trickery back on my side.’ So they weave trick plays into their playbooks. They start running when it looks like they’re going to pass, and pass when it looks like they’re going to run. They force their opponent to play honestly by catching them off-guard early in the game. I think that analogue holds very well for us.”

DARPA’s director, Arati Prabhakar, said in a statement that SCO’s focus on addressing immediate needs adds to a robust research ecosystem that includes both the public and private sectors.

“In a world of fast-morphing technologies and diverse threats, no single military capability or tech development strategy is going to ensure our national security,” she said.

[Infantry overhaul: How DARPA’s new experiments could shake up ground warfare]

SCO’s public emergence comes as the Pentagon continues to look for new ways to adapt more quickly. Last week, the Defense Department announced it would establish a new Defense Innovation Advisory Board run by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. It also opened an office in Silicon Valley last spring to strengthen relationships with technology companies there, who have historically not collaborated much with the Defense Department.

SCO was “essentially built around one smart guy” — Roper — who impressed Carter several years ago, the defense secretary said last week while in San Francisco. Carter, then the deputy defense secretary, challenged Roper to tackle problems confronting the Pentagon and he “found solution after solution after solution,” the secretary recalled.

“All of our service chiefs, our Joint Chiefs of Staff, love the guy because he’s providing real solutions,” Carter said. “So there are ways that you can be an exception to what I know is the rule of the government: [being] ponderous.”

The belief, Roper said, is that U.S. troops are bright enough to find new ways to use existing weapons. And some plans are extremely ambitious: One new project not previously reported is called Avatar, and calls for the Pentagon to pair high-tech “fifth-generation” fighter jets like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with unmanned versions of older jets like the F-16 Fighting Falcon or F/A-18 Hornet, which would be flown without a pilot for the first time.

The Avatar effort was previously called Skyborg by SCO and is known as “the Loyal Wingman” concept in the Air Force, Roper said. The program will require unmanned fighters to act with enough autonomy that the pilot in the manned jet doesn’t have to direct them all the time.

“There will be a lot of questions on safety, on reliability of the links between the planes,” Roper said. “All of these things have to be resolved. Bringing up that point is exactly what we try to infuse in the folks in our office. If there’s a question where you say, ‘Oh, we can worry about that later…’ Nope, we’re going to worry about that now.”

[Why drones will buzz to the forefront in the new Pentagon budget]

Another early concept is adapting the Navy’s Standard Missile-6 to be able to strike enemy ships. The missiles, filed vertically from the decks of destroyers and cruisers, were originally envisioned to intercept ballistic missiles high in the atmosphere, but are now considered dual-use following a recent experiment by the Navy.

The office also has worked on a concept known as Arsenal Plane. It calls for an undisclosed plane to carry a variety of weapons that can be directed by nearby stealth fighters like the F-22. The Pentagon wants to build a prototype next year, and says it could be ready for combat by the 2020s, Roper said.

“We don’t have to develop new planes,” Roper said. “We don’t have to develop fundamentally new weapons. But we have to work the integration and the concept of operation. And then you have a completely new capability, but you don’t have to wait long at all.”

The office currently has six full-time government employees and about 20 contractors, Roper said. Many details about the organization remain classified, but it receives technical support from several contractors who specialize in part on simulation and modeling, including Modern Technology Solutions Inc., in Alexandria, Va., and Science Applications International Corp. in McLean, Va.

The mini-drones were tested over Alaska last year as part of the military exercise Northern Edge, which focuses on training for crises in the Pacific. The program is named after Perdix, a character in Greek mythology who was changed into a partridge by the god Athena. It costs about $20 million, Roper said. The drones are constructed using 3-D printing — important considering the specific size needed to launch them through an aircraft’s flare dispenser and the toughness needed to survive such a violent birth.

Roper said SCO has been testing the mini-drones since 2014, but last year’s experiment during Northern Edge showed that they can find each other while airborne and create a swarm. Perdix drones were tested 150 times during the exercise in Alaska, including 72 from fighter jets. They also can be launched from the ground by U.S. troops, either with a slingshot-like launcher or by hurling them.

More military technology stories on Checkpoint:

Watch LOCUST, the Navy’s new prototype launcher to send drones into the sky

DARPA’s new experimental sniper bullet can turn in mid-flight

Watch how DARPA’s new close air support system works on an A-10 attack jet