A maintainer works on an F-35. After almost 20 years, the jets are technically still in the development stage. USAF wants to drastically speed up development and acquisition of new aircraft by using digital prototyping. Photo: Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie
Photo Caption & Credits

Acquisition Accelerators

March 1, 2020

With a dozen-plus initiatives, the Air Force is cutting decades from the acquisition process.

“Must go faster,” urges Ian Malcolm to the driver of his speeding jeep in the movie “Jurassic Park,” as a ravenous T-Rex pursues them through the jungle. The dinosaur looms in the rear-view mirror just above the warning, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

With China and Russia snapping at America’s military heels, the Air Force knows it, too, “must go faster,” as those and other adversaries advance their military capabilities with often astonishing speed. Competitors now deploy stealth aircraft, precision munitions, and sophisticated satellites—all once exclusive to USAF and, broadly, to the American military—and China and Russia have taken the lead in hypersonic missile technology and modern nuclear weapons. 

Speed matters in an era of reemerged great power competition. 
Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson

To keep its edge, the Air Force can no longer settle for a long and risk-averse acquisition process. It has to cut out unneeded steps, sharply shrink timelines, accelerate development, testing, and the writing of new software, take risks, and bring in new vendors who may offer novel approaches to military problems.

To do it, USAF is employing a dozen or so major acquisition initiatives to speed the introduction of new technology. 

The Air Force is planning to buy new engines for its B-52 fleet by using a “digital flyoff.” In the past, competing engines would have been mounted on the aircraft for flight tests. Photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan C. Bevan

Century Challenge

Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, along with service acquisition chief  Will Roper, set an early and ambitious speed goal in 2017: Take 100 years of process out of program schedules, because time is money, and delay is intolerable. By stripping away reviews and intermediate milestones, they aimed to accelerate results. 

By April 2018, they had succeeded. Roper chalked it up to “remaining exceptionally disciplined” about schedules, and the application of new congressional authorities to eliminate statutory requirements that add little besides delay. Now USAF is aiming to find another 50 years, at least. 

“Speed matters in an era of reemerged great power competition,” Wilson told Congress last May. Excess reviews only cause “delays getting capability to the war fighter.” 

The Air Force embraced new authorities granted it by Congress known as Section 804, which allow the Air Force to undertake more rapid prototyping, among other changes. Section 804 allows the Air Force to “Begin prototyping … nearly a year and a half earlier than under the old system,” Roper and then-Undersecretary Matt Donovan wrote in Defense News in August 2019. The new authorities also “give engineers more time for testing and troubleshooting; and keep flawed concepts from entering production and operations—a whopping 70 percent of a program’s total cost.”

The Air Force said it had taken three years out of a program to reengine the B-52 bomber and two years out of an F-22 upgrade plan. Service leaders also claimed a five-year reduction in two hypersonic missile programs: the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon [HCSW] and Advanced Rapid Response Weapon [ARRW]. 

In another shift, the Air Force is buying new engines for the B-52 the same way commercial airlines buy their engines. Finalists in the competition will compete in a “digital flyoff” rather than provide mounds of paper proposals.

Prototyping “is the safe place to fail,” Roper said. If flaws make their way into the final product, it will be a perpetual headache in operations and sustainment. 

The Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, is an example of a program where USAF is pulling together a number of speed initiatives all at once. The ABMS is meant to substitute for the E-8 Joint STARS ground moving target radar plane, which also serves as an air battle manager. Such a “big wing” intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform makes for an inviting target in a fight, given the limited number of aircraft in the JSTARS fleet. The Air Force has decided instead to shift the functions performed by JSTARS to a network and “cloud” format, the better to move information around and allow the network to heal itself if some nodes are lost.

“We wanted to show we could do this very rapidly,” Roper said of a late fall 2019 experiment in which information was passed from an Air Force F-22 to a Navy F-35, with inputs from a Starlink satellite, an AC-130 gunship, and other nodes. The experiment will be followed up in April with more elaborate tests, such as using an unmanned “cyborg” aircraft to operate as a flying communications hub that translates signals from all the involved systems so others can receive and understand them.

The experiment demonstrated that “mesh, ad hoc networking” could work in a contested environment and “does not take years to set up,” Roper said in January. With each experiment, Roper said he’s looking for 10 to 15 percent more capability, learning at each step, and thus achieving “velocity” of improvement. 

“The technology changes that quickly,” he said. “The CONOPS [concept of operations] and the warfighting approaches are going to have to adapt at a speed that’s equivalent.” He added that ABMS will “emerge, slice by slice,” rather than all at once. Numerous subprograms will contribute to ABMS, each with its own demonstration schedule, but by running experimentation every four months, the Air Force will seek to ensure that “they work together.”

Tech. Sgt. Keith Boudreau, from the 31st Maintenance Group, created a 3D-printed spacer to repair phones as part of the Air Force Repair Enhancement Program. Photo: Senior Airman Kevin Sommer Giron

Accept Failures, And Give People Top Cover

Although Section 804 has helped—for many programs—acquisition pros already have the tools they need to go fast, Roper said in April 2019. Rather than new laws or relief from old ones, he suggested, one of the best ways to speed up acquisition is to shield contracting officers when things don’t pan out. 

“You can do almost anything with the FAR [Federal Acquisition Regulation] if you have top cover,” Roper said. Acquisition managers would go faster if they did not fear losing their jobs—or worse—if they make occasional mistakes. Indeed, Roper said if there aren’t any failures or missteps, there isn’t enough risk-taking and “there won’t be any big successes, either.” 

In the ABMS experiment, Roper said, the level of success might actually suggest the experiment was too conservative. 

“I think 26 of 28 things worked, and that is too high of a success rate this first time,” he said. “But I’ll take it. We should be taking more risks than that.” Roper has also said he would reward “glorious failures” if they produce solid learning that can later accelerate programs.

AFWERX allows companies to pitch their off-the-shelf ideas firsthand, as in this Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research event. Success here could lead to a government contract in under 30 days. Photo: Kyle Fetter/USAF


The Air Force launched “AFWERX” in 2017 as an umbrella organization that would engage industry, small business, academia, and Airmen to seek out new technologies, mainly those already in commercial service, that could be adapted to provide new combat power. One of its objectives is to “quickly identify, validate, acquire, and integrate” new technologies, products, and solutions. Among its activities are  “Spark Tank” competitions in which Airmen compete to offer low-cost/high-return improvements to help them accomplish their missions. Other efforts pair entrepreneurs with Airmen and/or academics to explore new solutions to operational challenges.

Among the AFWERX enterprises is “Air Force Ventures,” which seeks private capital to invest in technical solutions, placing bets on ideas’ potential. Each year AFWERX funds about 1,000 small projects valued at $50,000 or less; about 300 mid-sized projects with investments under $1 million each; and a couple of dozen strategic projects valued in the tens of millions per year. While many of these programs will not yield operational results, the intent is to identify opportunities, explore them, and determine their viability as fast as possible.

Rapid Sustainment

Roughly 70 percent of the cost of any program covers sustainment, versus acquisition costs. Streamlining sustainment, therefore, offers substantial savings if the Air Force can find ways to squeeze out costs, and operate more quickly and efficiently. 

The service established a Rapid Sustainment Office in its Life Cycle Management Center  at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, in 2018 to exploit 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and predictive maintenance technologies in the hopes that unscheduled maintenance will someday be a thing of the past.

By tracking what each airplane does during flight and conducting maintenance based on actual usage, as opposed to following a rigid, one-size-fits-all schedule, the center aims to squeeze out savings and increase readiness. Aircraft that simply fly from one part of the country to another need less attention than those pulling maximum G forces and engaging in heavy air combat maneuvering, for example.

Applying condition-based maintenance to the KC-135 tanker enabled the fleet to improve from 255 cancellation days in a single year “to 300 straight days with no maintenance cancellation,” Lt. Gen. Robert McMurry Jr. told Air Force Magazine in an interview.

Air Force Chief ABMS Architect Preston Dunlap uses real-time data-sharing tools to show how the Advanced Battle Management System works in a simulated scenario at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Photo: Tech. Sgt. Joshua J. Garcia

Digital Century Series

The traditional method of introducing new airplanes into Air Force service has grown longer over the years; prototypes for what would become the F-22 flew in 1990, and that jet’s initial operational capability [IOC] occurred some 15 years later. With the F-35, it was 16years from prototype to IOC, and now, 20years after program go-ahead, the jets are technically still in the development phase. 

Twenty-year development cycles won’t work anymore, and Roper has said what USAF needs is a return to the idea of the “Century Series” airplanes of the 1950s and 1960s, in which the Air Force designed and fielded nine types of fighters in almost as many years. Not all were successful, and some were withdrawn fairly quickly, but the exercise rapidly built understanding of engines, materials, aerodynamics, and the interplay of the aircraft with their sensors and weapon systems. It also forced the Soviet Union to devise ways to cope with a bewildering array of U.S. aircraft. 

Roper wants to follow a similar approach using digital prototyping to generate virtual designs that can be tweaked and revised before a physical airplane is actually built. Roper foresees building 50 to 100 of a promising design, then either improving on it before building more, or pressing on with some other new aircraft already in the works. The aim is to go from design to flyable jet in five years, he said. 

The payoff to this approach would be rapid technology refreshes and the means for new firms to emerge and compete in the aircraft design world. Because these planes would not be designed for long service life, the Air Force would not have to sustain them over thousands of flight hours. Instead of engineering airframes to last 12,000 hours, designers would engineer for perhaps 5,000. That could cure “vanishing vendor syndrome,” where whole fleets are held hostage as components are discontinued by parts suppliers. 

Pitch Days and Credit Cards

The Air Force has long held Industry Days, where contractors discuss the technological art of the possible on new programs and upgrades. Traditionally, service officials provided the outlines of their objectives at these events, which were followed by a series of meetings, draft requests for proposals, comments, and revisions, often lasting years before bids and selection.

Now the Air Force is sponsoring “pitch days,” where companies make short presentations and the most promising ideas can generate a contract the same day. Although pitch days tend to focus on software and small businesses, Roper sees no reason why the concept can’t be expanded to more complex programs. The first one was held in March 2019, and after at a two-day, space-oriented pitch event in November, the Air Force awarded contracts worth $22.5 million, in some cases paying the bill with a government credit card.

Small businesses “can’t wait” for the wheels of the acquisition system to produce a check, Roper said. Credit card payments mean contractors can get right to work. 

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said pitch days demonstrate USAF will do what it takes to address contractor needs and make it as easy as possible to do government work. “The bottom line is, we need you and the creativity you bring,” she said.

Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said in January that she is “encouraging a high level of engagement” with industry to clear away misunderstandings and make sure the Pentagon isn’t setting unrealistic goals. 

“We are trying to decompose acquisition so it’s very intuitive to anybody who wants to do business with the Department of Defense,” she said. The Pentagon wants to understand from industry “what we’re doing that’s driving cost, what’s good for markets, [and] what’s not.” 

Trusted Capital

The Pentagon has become keenly aware that China, particularly, has been either buying up promising technology companies or, by investing in them, gaining access to their secrets. In response, the Pentagon has launched the “Trusted Capital Marketplace” concept, wherein companies that have verified American provenance and security put up the money for new commercial ventures that could benefit the military. In November, the first such TCM event was held, seeking finance for companies working in unmanned aerial systems, as well as counter-drone systems.

“This is a public-private partnership that will convene trusted sources of private capital with innovative companies critical to the defense industrial base and national security,” Lord said at a Pentagon press conference. 

The need for such secure funding is particularly felt in the manufacture of integrated circuits, computer motherboards, and the like. The concern is that China may be manufacturing chips and other components with “back doors” that could be used to disable the end product or spy on its use. The Defense Department is also investing in “trusted foundries” to produce chips without foreign content.   

Agile Software Development and Dev Ops

Agile software development traces its roots to the Agile Manifesto, a set of principles detailed in February 2001. But the concept took nearly a decade before it would become standard practice in the commercial software world, and nearly a decade more before the military would also embrace the concept. It breaks down software development into pieces that can be developed and released incrementally, rather than waiting for the whole project to be complete. By integrating development, testing, fielding, feedback, and refinement with frequent releases of new software, agile development allows designers and users to share a constant feedback loop. USAF has adopted Agile by launching development labs such as Kessel Run, a USAF software shop whose motto is “continuous delivery, continuous feedback, continuous learning.” (It’s named after a fictional route traveled by Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon in the original “Star Wars.”)

One of the big drivers in adopting Agile—and the standup of Kessel Run—was the failed Air Operations Center Increment 10.2 program to automate information flow in the AOC. After a decade of effort without results, the project was scrapped in 2017, and the Air Force opted for rapid, incremental improvements instead of waiting for an all-encompassing final capability. 

Speaking to reporters in January about the way ahead on ABMS and about rapid acquisition in general, Roper said going fast does “great things” for a program because it allows the service to “demonstrate and retire risk quickly, learn quickly, and energizes your team.” They can see the results of their efforts almost immediately, without waiting years for the results. On ABMS, the four-month cycle allows USAF to “put industry in the design-and-build seat very early on, working with an engineer, an operator, where the fun is getting to see their system demonstrated,” according to Roper. The program will have a “pot of money” that will allow for “continual opportunity for innovation. I think that alone is going to help us get really interesting ideas from industry and ensure the … A-team … is working on this program.”