“Wings Through Time,” a painting by Robert Emerson Bell, inspired former Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper to aim for a return to rapid introduction of new airplanes.
Photo Caption & Credits

Q&A: A New Way to Build Fighters

Nov. 1, 2019
Roper explains ways to accelerate acquisition at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., last March. Photo: A1C Caitlin Russell

Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, is the point man within the Air Force for accelerating acquisition and finding ways to leverage technology to save money and build a more lethal Air Force. He served previously as the head of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, and before that as the Chief Architect of the Missile Defense Agency. He spoke exclusively with Editorial Director John A. Tirpak about the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system, and Roper’s “Digital Century Series” concept for developing future combat aircraft. This is an excerpt from that interview.

Q. Air Combat Command needs a new air superiority capability by 2030, and the Air Force is talking with industry about possible technologies. But it seems like you want to restructure the way you design and build aircraft before you jump into NGAD.

A. I don’t think the immediate set of technologies for NGAD have shifted at all. They are a good set. I wish we could talk more broadly about them, but they make sense.

But how we build aircraft, that doesn’t make sense. Approaching NGAD the way we did the F-35 would put us at great risk. It would shrink the industry base even further and incentivize companies to get out of the fighter-building business.

The idea of the ‘Digital Century Series’ is not about building aircraft that are different, but about building aircraft differently. The key tenet is a new ‘holy trinity’ of technologies that would flip the pace of building new things and the price we pay for them. That trinity is: agile software development—no surprises, there—modular, open-systems architecture—because we want to be able to change out components quickly and seamlessly—and, finally, digital engineering, which is the new element.

We’re accustomed to doing things digitally in the Air Force. Flight simulators, for example, help pilots get proficient faster than just flying. It’s cheaper to do it that way, as well.

Digital engineering brings that same idea into design, production, and sustainment. It brings a high level of fidelity, and not just in the design of the aircraft. It’s the assembly line, where people are doing work; what work is being done; the machines that do the work; the tooling. All digitally modeled, so you can optimize it. You can get expensive tooling out if you can find a better substitute. You can change a process from requiring an artisan with years of training to one requiring a lower skill level. The idea is to find a better way of assembling things, and raise the learning curve in the digital space, before you ever build the first aircraft.

The ambition—which I think is completely achievable—is building the first airplane as if it was the hundredth.

Q. Are there any examples that prove this works

A. The T-7A [formerly known as the T-X] trainer is one. It gives you a leading indicator that when you apply digital engineering—and Boeing has, for that airplane—amazing things are possible. Now we want to show that we can do the same thing for advanced aircraft, and bring in the software and modularity. Everything is empowered by software—we want to have apps on airplanes that change every day if necessary—and the modularity because we want to be able to change the subsystems frequently.

Think about combining those things. You could be in production at a very low rate with a very small team if you get the hard tooling and highly skilled workforce out of the assembly line. You could build airplanes LEGO-style.

Q. So this lowers the bar for companies to compete for design work

A. At the time of the original Century Series [the F-100 through F-117], we had over a dozen companies that could design and build airplanes. We want to get back to that, where companies design things and build them at a small rate.

With digital engineering, as technologies mature, you can modernize the design; cut new things into production without slowing down the flow. And do it between multiple vendors so that there’s competition.

Q. Instead of winner-take-all, you’ll have multiple companies designing aircraft for you constantly

A. Multiple companies designing and building concurrently, with different technologies, and not designing ‘X’ planes but aircraft that could be produced in quantity—if the nation needs them—and flown by any pilot in the Air Force without specialized training. That’s the core idea.

We hope for radically different results in terms of quality, and to keep quantities low until we need quantity in bulk.

We have to try something different, because we have so few major acquisition programs that it has shrunk the industrial base for tactical aircraft down to two or three companies that can do it. We have to change the paradigm so there’s profit in design, and not ask companies to buy into a program, and hope to make their investment back in production and sustainment of a large number of things.

If we don’t change that, we’re in danger of collapsing to a single national fighter company, and that is not where we want to be.

Q. It used to be, companies lost their shirts in design, but made profits later. That’s been the model since the 1980s.

A. See, we don’t want people to lose their shirt in design. We want people to get paid in design. If you want a cutting-edge Air Force, give companies profit for designing cutting-edge things.

I love design. That’s where I want to be. The last thing I want is a program saying, ‘hurry, hurry, let’s get into production’ and not think about cutting-edge because we’re already in the hole. That’s the model we now consider normal, and there’s nothing normal about asking industry to lose money in design if you want to be cutting-edge.

Q. What would change in the usual production process, particularly on the back end

A. With the Digital Century Series, we want to give profit in design, keep production rates low, never go to ‘full rate’ production, not buy hundreds or thousands of things so that we can keep upgrading and modernizing, and re-competing who builds the next aircraft every few years. If we do this well, and digital tools become common industry practice, you don’t have to be a producer of thousands to be a competitor. You can be a competitor as a great design company. And if this sounds like science fiction, it’s already happened in the automotive industry.

If we do it, we can start building cutting-edge aircraft every few years, and we can build satellites this way, as well.

Q. How many would you make

Maybe a wing’s worth or two wings’ worth of aircraft, not designing them to last 30 years, but with a shorter service life so we retire the airplane as the next aircraft comes online. We could grow the industrial base again. And if we do one every four or five years, then we can impose cost on our adversaries, because they’d never know what’s on the next airplane we’re fielding.

What would be great for a platform developer is, they could keep their design teams together and profit from doing it. No win would be a big one, and no loss would be a big loss, so you don’t have to fight us in court. The loser cannot lose and be out forever. There has to always be a way to enter and keep designing. You just need to get back to designing the next one.

Q. Notionally, how many are we talking about? 50? 100

A. That’s part of why I’m going to focus a whole team on doing this, with a program executive officer to lead. It’ll be a special organization with autonomy, similar to Big Safari, with a very different mission, but focused 100 percent on building digital aircraft.

I’ve been discussing this with industry, the platform manufacturers, the suppliers, and there’s general enthusiasm. You can imagine, the idea of building things frequently has a lot of appeal. Because the intervals between major programs have grown to about 20 years. But there’s a general sense of caution as well, because this is new.

The idea has appeal, too, because they would not be in a place where they have no idea when the next fighter or bomber is going to be built.

This is different from ‘X-planes’ because those are about high-tech demonstrators, never meant to go into production. We’re designing these with the idea that any one of them could go into production. And we’ll crunch the numbers, but we envision that production of 50-60 is probably the minimum for any aircraft, because if we make too few, there’s no business case for industry.

General [Mike] Holmes, [commander of Air Combat Command], sees operational advantages to this, but what I’ve been told is, it’s more difficult to use anything less than a wing of about 72 aircraft. Doing this every five years, and maybe four, an acquisition strategy might look like: award a contract for 50, and then evaluate whether or not you want to award another option for 25, and then another option for 25. And then, at year four, move into competition for the next aircraft. And if you’re not happy after 50, maybe switch to a new design earlier.

I’m envious, because I’d love to be the program manager for this.

There’s a painting in the Pentagon with every airplane used by the Army Air Corps and Air Force, [“Wings Through Time” by Robert Emerson Bell]. And it shows that at the beginning, there was this big boom in development, but as you get into the Cold War, the aircraft get more sparse. And every time I pass it, I think, ‘I wish I’d gotten to do acquisition during the earlier parts of the painting.’ How exciting it would have been to have a new airplane coming out so frequently

“Wings Through Time,” a painting by Robert Emerson Bell, inspires USAF acquisition chief Will Roper to aim for a return to rapid introduction of new airplanes.

Q. How long would you keep these airplanes

A. We don’t yet know what to tell industry to design for, in terms of service life. We’re going to have maverick-y maintainers and sustainers on the team. I’ve asked General [Arnold] Bunch, [head of Air Force Materiel Command], for help on this because we don’t want these things to go through 30-year service lives. We want to balance the number of flight hours with the pace at which we can upgrade. And if we do that, we don’t end up doing deep overhaul maintenance at the depots because we’re taking them out of service sooner.

The good news is, we can pull some of the profit and cashflow industry currently gets from long-term sustainment contracts and plow that back into design and micro-production. So, we won’t get any new money from Congress, but we can shift where it’s spent. We’re not going to compete with China by sustaining old things well.

Q. So you can apply this idea to unmanned aircraft as well

A. You can apply this to anything. And although this is not a sharper point on the spear, it is a much faster spear-building process, and that’s what our adversaries should fear.

I want to achieve the same revolution in aircraft and satellites and weapons that the automotive industry has achieved. Our cars [today] are increasingly digital, they run forever and they never break down. And companies can produce multiple cars in the same production lines, seamlessly, without any bump in progress or flow. We could do that.

Q. Is there enough time to apply this to NGAD? Can you risk figuring this out on such an important project

A. We’ve got a set of technologies ready to go. We’ve got a healthy supplier base for the subsystems and they are excited to bring technologies to us, but they’re not all at the same level of maturity. There’s value in beginning—and demonstrating—that we can make this digital process work, getting some advanced tech on the airplanes that we don’t have today, and then including the additional technology from the subsystems as it matures.

How we go forward is a warfighter decision. I will offer best advice on what’s possible, and they will pick and choose what we do and when. But we’ve had great support from our senior leaders. I fully expect that we will begin as soon as we’ve figured out how you make a positive business case, balancing all the variables of design timeline, technology, maturation, sustainment, and then what it takes to make this profitable for industry.