Roper: Forget Acquisition Reform, Give Acquirers Top Cover to Go Fast

Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, speaks at an AFA Mitchell Institute event in Arlington, Va., on April 12, 2019. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

Defense acquisition reform—a cottage industry in Washington for decades—is a red herring, the Air Force’s acquisition chief said Friday. He argues that the best way to speed up and lower costs on defense goods and services is to instead provide “top cover” for acquisition professionals who already have most of the tools and talent they need to buy fast and buy well. They just need to believe they’ll be supported when trying new approaches.

Roper told attendees at an AFA Mitchell Institute event in Arlington, Va., that the Section 804 changes—wherein Congress allowed the Pentagon to skip steps or highly modify the Federal Acquisition Regulation—“doesn’t actually give you much that’s new in terms of authorities.” He said, “You can do almost anything with the FAR if you have top cover.” What it is, though, is a “crystal clear message from Congress” that Capitol Hill also wants acquisition to move faster. The Section 804 authorities mark “a culture change … No one wants a new organization chart … and declare victory” in acquisition reform. That’s never worked, Roper said.

Instead, “Speed is going to continue to be our focus,” Roper asserted. Speed is more important than saving money, because the world has changed, and the US no longer enjoys a monopoly on super-high-tech.

“The model from the Cold War is based on technology exclusivity,” he explained. As in, “‘We’re going to have technology no one else will have, we’ll keep it very secret…and then on Day One of the war: surprise!’” But if high technology is available to everyone, “The only thing that makes sense to me … [is that] time to market has to be” the new discriminator. Eventually, that model “will be copied … so be there first, use it first, and by the time the second responders have done the same, you’re on to something else.”

He said he told Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson early in his 13-month stint that, “If we focus solely on saving money—and I realize that’s a great talking point in Washington—if that’s our focus, then we’re going to lose, with more money in our pockets.”

The Air Force’s acquisition professionals have impressed Roper, he said, and as long as they feel they have his support and that of the senior leadership to try new approaches, skip unnecessary steps, and yes, occasionally make mistakes, they can be counted on to do “amazing things.” The Air Force is actually now giving out awards for what Roper termed “spectacular learning events” in which a new approach didn’t work out but provided lessons learned on how to do things better.

“If I’m not seeing any failures, then I’m not seeing any big successes, either,” Roper observed. To be on the cutting edge means taking risks, he insisted.

One avenue to speed will be digital modeling, which will allow prototypes to be designed on a computer, and every design tweak can be almost instantly evaluated for its future production and sustainment cost; a huge time and cost saver. This approach can be used for what he’s termed the “New Century Series,” harkening back to the F-100 through F-111 fighters that were designed, developed, and fielded every few years in the 1960s. Some were dropped and others modified and improved, but none were expected to stay in service too long because of the rapid pace of technological change. Roper says the time is right for a similar approach that doesn’t plan to buy and sustain 1,500 fighters for 30 years, but perhaps 150 fighters meant to last 10 years.

Such an approach will also rapidly experience the workforce, Roper said, allowing designers to work on many projects in a career instead of one every 30 years. The approach is also capable of bringing new entrants into the airframe business, which has been shrinking. He said one of his goals is to bring new companies into defense work, instead of assuming the industrial base must always shrink. The DOD is a “patient” buyer that is willing to pay more than the commercial market for good technology, he said. Working for the Air Force can be like a hothouse for new tech ventures, and as they grow past being a “small business initiative”—a term Roper finds pejorative—they will have more to offer and retain a positive experience working for the service.

Roper reiterated that sustainment costs represent more than 70 percent of the cost for acquisition, but that has not gotten attention before in the way that developing new technologies do. He noted that Major Defense Acquisition Program comprise just 10 percent of acquisition dollars; the rest is in much smaller purchases.

He’s been told USAF could easily achieve 10 percent sustainment savings, which would not only pay for additional prototyping, but more programs. Additive, or 3D printing is making huge strides, he said, and dropping costs on aged platforms where contractors were obliged to design and certify replacement parts “and we only buy five,” meaning the contractor must charge exorbitant fees. With 3D, the “development phase, … if you will,” is eliminated, and the contractor can charge less, saving USAF more. With additive repair—bringing engine parts slightly out of tolerance back into shape—an engine part that might cost $10,000 to $100,000 to replace can be repaired for a tiny fraction of that amount.

He also said it won’t be long before predictive maintenance—made possible by artificial intelligence able to anticipate needed repairs—will make unplanned maintenance, the biggest cost driver, a thing of the past.

Again, though, speed is the goal, rather than savings, which will often come as a byproduct, Roper said.

“No one takes more risk than our contracting workforce,” Roper said, and it deserves the backing of the leadership. Otherwise, the result is what the Air Force has experienced for more than a decade—a risk-averse culture making turgid progress in fielding new capabilities.

Air Force acquisition must “let go of the old, do the new,” and embrace the OODA loop just as combat personnel do, Roper insisted. He is excited by the enthusiasm and imagination being shown by program managers who now feel they can take risks without fear.

“Our future Air Force is going to be awesome” because of the innovations program managers are implementing, he said.