Roper, shown here after a U-2 flight in October 2019, challenged the U-2 Federal Laboratory to apply artificial intelligence to ease the burden on the high-flying jets' pilots. They delivered, and the system successfully flew Dec. 16, 2020. Airman 1st Class Dakota LeGrand
Photo Caption & Credits

The Great Experimenter

Jan. 25, 2021

Will Roper spawned a revolution in acquisition as USAF’s procurement chief. Will his innovations survive?

The fighter jet, in all its complex, high-performance glory, has long defined the public image and brand of the U.S. Air Force. Yet for all its power, it is not the brand definition the Air Force of tomorrow will need, argues Will Roper, who completed four years as the Air Force’s assistant secretary of acquisition in January. 

Roper, a self-styled disruptor, technology advocate, and innovation enthusiast, has a different vision in mind. 

“The thing I would wish is that the Air Force’s brand is innovation—and I think we’re getting there,” Roper said in December. “When I came in, I felt like it was the fighter. And there’s nothing wrong with fighters. …. I am for the Air Force having amazing airplanes. But what I feel from reading history … is that in the early Air Force, air power was so in flux that it wasn’t clear what would be coming down the pipelines. Planes changed so frequently, … records were being broken … the next thing was always more important than the current thing.” 

The thing I would wish is that the Air Force’s brand would be innovation—and I think we’re getting there.Will Roper, outgoing USAF assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics

The result was a steady and remarkable flow of innovation, as new wing forms and engine technologies helped produce aircraft with unique speed, altitude, or maneuver advantages. 

But with the end of the Cold War, the international competitive threats that drove investment and innovation slowed, Roper said, calling that shift a “tragedy” and “one of the real casualties of the Cold War, specifically for the Air Force, because it took away that adaptive, agile vibrancy of the future only being a year away.” 

As acquisition chief, Roper sought to reinvigorate innovation by hitting the accelerator on modernization, innovative acquisition, and investment strategies, and preaching the gospel that transformation can come about through digital engineering, artificial intelligence and cloud technology, and agile software development based on proven commercial practice.  

Roper pressed to replace the E-8C Joint STARS aircraft, not with another airplane but with a system-of-systems concept intended to link up everything in the battlespace. He calls the evolving network the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) the “Internet of Military Things.” Similarly, he has pressed for accelerating aircraft development by laying aside recent history and programs that develop slowly and last decades longer in the field and instead pursuing a “Digital Century Series,” an incremental approach to rapidly developing future fighter jets without the intent to keep them flying for decades on end. He invested in Air Force-owned and -operated “software factories” built to practice agile, iterative development, much as commercial internet behemoths do. Finally, he stood up AFWERX to collaborate and contract with innovative startups and AFVentures to invest in promising, nascent firms. 

“We can’t stand back and hope that the world’s best technology is going to be available,” Roper said. “We can’t stand back and hope we’re gonna have the world’s best industrial base to make the 10th generation aircraft—whatever it looks like. We’ve got to actively engage innovation itself as a battlefield, so that technology and markets emerge in this nation first, leading to  an industrial base that is capable of building a war-winning Air Force that’s backward from the way we’re trained. We are given a world-leading industrial base and we go build a war-winning Air Force with it. That will lose in this competition with globalized technology. We actually have to find a way to make an Air Force, a Space Force, or any part of the military, a catalyst to make sure that our industrial base remains at the top. And if it does, then our military will” remain on top, as well. 

Yet while Roper preached a gospel of optimistic change, his drive to upend the acquisition system ran into skepticism on Capitol Hill, with legislators cutting requested funding for ABMS and Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) substantially. 

Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies sees threats to both programs in the future. “I think the fact that Congress just cut ABMS funding by 47 percent and NGAD funding by 13 percent indicates that these programs are in trouble,” he said in January. “Much of the intent behind what Dr. Roper has been pushing is sound—using more digital engineering in programs, giving the government more insight and ability to test designs, and breaking the lock companies traditionally hold on future upgrades and sustainment. 

Lt. Col. Matthew Strohmeyer, U.S. NORTHCOM scenario coordinator, briefs senior leadership during the first Advanced Battle Management System live demonstration, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Dec. 18, 2019. ABMS may prove to be Roper’s most enduring legacy. Tech. Sgt. Joshua Garcia

“But I think where these new approaches have fallen short,” he added, “is in the implementation details and how the analysis behind decisions have been communicated.”

With a new administration taking over, some lawmakers are pressing to cut funding for major programs and to call in outside oversight to review costly investments. Added to growing budget deficits in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic relief, many are wondering whether Roper’s innovative strategies will survive. 

From JSTARS to the Cloud

ABMS represents Roper’s most ambitious bet. A project that began as a concept for replacing the E-8C JSTARS ballooned into a series of technology demonstrators intended to connect every sensor to every shooter in a single, grand “Internet of Military Things.” Instead of operators working in the back of an old Boeing 707 aircraft, ABMS aims to enable almost anyone in the chain of command to access, in real time, a complete battlefield operational picture, including threats, assets, and recommended courses of action generated through artificial intelligence. 

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, left, joins Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. during a visit to AFWERX’s hub in Austin, Texas, in August 2020. Staff Sgt. Jordyn Fetter/ANG

ABMS advanced from theoretical PowerPoint briefings to real-time “on-ramp” experiments, testing new technologies and solutions to prove  real-world applicability. In September 2020, the second on-ramp experiment connected dozens of aircraft across the country, plus ground- and sea-based sensors, and culminated with a remote command to down a cruise missile threat with non-typical shooters, including a “smart bullet” fired from a howitzer and a ground-based AIM-9X. The goal of these experiments was to prove that the “Internet of Military Things” is possible, and now in 2021 the next step is to make it more of a reality.

“This is a huge endeavor to take on—building the military’s internet of things—and there has been broad support for doing it,” Roper said in an interview. “But there’s also been concern about how do I understand this unconventional program in a way I can oversee?”

To do that, Roper assigned the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) in November to be the “program executive office” for ABMS. This means the RCO, already tasked with overseeing the B-21 Raider and X-37B space plane, has authority to define requirements  

“It’s just acquisition work,” Roper said. “It’s time for ABMS to start having procurement and operations and sustainment funding associated with it.”

The first fruit of that effort will be a data pod that can be mounted on a tanker’s wing and can offload data while fighters refuel. This ABMS “Release No. 1” will debut in calendar 2021. 

Here’s how that pod could work: F-22s and F-35s operating without data links in an anti-access, area-denial environment, depart the threat ring to refuel; while tanking up, they download new intelligence and orders that the tanker has downloaded from the ABMS cloud to the pod. Then they return to the fight.

“We have an opportunity with our tankers who will be airborne,” Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost said in an interview. “Why not have the capability to relay … line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight links to ensure that our tactical forces have the intelligence and support that they need while they’re airborne?”

The RCO will try to take sensors and data links that perform well in on-ramp exercises and build them into pods that can be distributed to operating bases and quickly mounted on tankers as needed. Roper said the RCO is studying pod form factors, acquisition strategies, and data-linking technologies.

The objective is for ABMS to “get some dirt on it, meaning when we demonstrate it, it stays in the field—in 2021. That takes the program out of the realm of fantasy and places it squarely in the operational world. 

“There’s a real program with a real baseline with real war- fighters ready to use it day to day, not an exceptional event that we stood up to prove the technology works,” Roper noted. “We already know the technology works. We use it every day. This is about showing we can use it on our military systems without having to wait for traditional acquisition timelines.”

Skeptics on Capitol Hill placed limits on funding ABMS and called the Air Force out for insufficient direction and limited oversight. Roper said, “Release No. 1” and similar steps will demonstrate progress and, hopefully, win over the skeptics to avoid future budget cuts.

“Cutting the funding for the on-ramps means we may be in danger of making them more technology demonstrations rather than what they currently are, which is a good balance of technology and warfighter tradecraft,” according to Roper.  “I hope we’ll be able to convince Congress that we need to do both.” 

Engineering Gone Digital

Roper also pushed for modern engineering and manufacturing by using digital modeling to simulate performance tests and accelerate design. At the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September, he dropped a bombshell: A prototype of the NGAD platform had secretly completed its first flight, setting a development speed record in the process. 

Digital engineering made that possible. This approach also helped Boeing deliver a clean-sheet airplane design—the T-7A trainer—in record time and at considerably lower cost than anticipated. And it is the foundational cornerstone of Roper’s Digital Century Series initiative, the enabling technology for squeezing the timeline to develop new tactical aircraft. 

“What we’re proposing is pretty radical—and that’s exactly what tactical aviation needs,” Roper stated. “We’ve been stuck in a rut since the end of the Cold War, and we’ve watched a commercial industry radically change in a way the defense industry hasn’t. So, with this breakthrough technology, that’s already changed the automotive industry, peeking into defense, a really valid question would be, ‘Why aren’t you doing something radical with it?’”

NGAD is still in the design phase, and it is still under evaluation “in the digital world.” As with ABMS, legislators have challenged Roper’s concepts, cutting NGAD funding and calling for the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office to review both NGAD  and the Digital Century Series approach. Roper said in December that classification makes it difficult to talk about these programs openly and that COVID-19 and social distancing made communicating harder over the past year.

“The thing that’s the big delineator on NGAD is whether we’re able to talk with folks on the Hill in a classified level or not,” Roper said. “It’s a difficult program to say anything on without being able to get in the SCIF,” or sensitive, compartmented information facility. Roper made waves when he announced the first NGAD flight, but he defended that decision. “It’s helped us to say that a full-scale flight demonstrator has flown—that we’re not just talking theory, but we’ve taken this to practice,” he said. “But to really talk about anything that makes us excited about the program, we have to get in the SCIF. And that’s been difficult during COVID-19. I hope NGAD does not become an unintended casualty of COVID-19.”

Roper argues it’s in everyone’s best interests to give the concepts a chance. His new approach promises  shorter timelines and fewer expenses. 

“You don’t really have to believe in the approach to approve of the program,” he said. “Because if we fail, we’re going to fail in practice, and you’re going to be able to tell long before we get to that Digital Century Series. You’ll be able to tell because we’re behind on all of our deliverables and we’re not integrating as quickly as you can. You’ll know far in advance of us trying to do that alternating vendor business. So, if you want to see that aircraft procurement curve bent—hopefully broken—then give us a shot.”

The Air Force as a Startup

Another of Roper’s gambles has been to apply a Silicon Valley-style approach to defense technology. The Air Force created AFWERX—a tech “startup” within the Air Force aimed at spurring development and connecting companies with military customers, and AFVentures, which operates similarly to venture capitalists (VC), securing seed funding for new businesses developing military-relevant tools. 

“We are kind of like an investor, we see a lot of technology, but we don’t really think of it like a VC would, like we’re seeding a lot of technology to have one of them come through and then end up paying for the rest,” he said. Rather, the investments are more like an individual investor’s, who is spreading money around to ensure a strong future in retirement. 

“We’re bringing that methodology into the Air Force, and it’s sticking really well,” Roper said. “In fact, sticking so well with us that the analysis we’re doing of companies to put them on contract for these investments is so well received by private venture capitalists that … every dollar that the Air Force is putting into commercial tech companies is being matched, on average, by four private investment dollars. We are literally multiplying our money.”

The Air Force has embraced  “pitch days” where small businesses pitch their concepts and many walk away with contracts, paid on the spot with a government credit card. These events showed that the Air Force—and Space Force—can cut through bureaucracy and quickly produce results, Roper said. 

“We have small businesses working with us now that are building quiet, supersonic airplanes and attempting to build a hypersonic drone,” Roper said. “These are small businesses, but we should just change the word small to agile, they’re not small, they’re agile. And you know, Yoda in “Star Wars” told us not to judge him by his size, and we shouldn’t judge these companies by theirs either. So, pitch days are about providing them a level playing field to get their ideas to us.”

Ashley Feldman, a contracting officer, and Will Roper process payment on a small business grant using a government credit card during a Space Pitch Day event in November 2019. Senior Airman Christian Conrad

Among the innovations fueled by Roper’s “Agility Prime:” small, lightweight “flying cars.” With the U.S. having failed to capitalize on its early lead in drone technology, with China instead becoming the global commercial leader for small, off-the-shelf drones. The Air Force launched Agility Prime in April expressly to encourage the development of comparatively low-cost  “flying cars” to carry up to eight people at 100 mph or faster, at least 100 miles. Roper’s aim is to have a small fleet of these micro aircraft by 2023. The Air Force’s instigation could spur a whole new industry, he said, “There is a path for the military market to accelerate domestic use.” 

What’s Next

Might Roper’s changes last? Time will tell, but he is hopeful. 

“Most of what we need are long-term changes that have to be started in the near-term, and my hope is that for efforts that I think are important are that … they’ll be checked by the incoming administration,” he said. “Do they think they’re the right efforts? Do they think these are the things the military will need to be competitive long-term? And then look at the fruits that have been borne, given the time that they’ve had to mature,” said Roper.

NGAD’s success in flying a demonstrator within a few short years proves he’s on the right track, Roper argues. “And when can you stay that of another program in recent department history?” he asked. Likewise, in just three years, AFWERX has helped attract $4 billion in private venture capital investment to firms it’s contracted. That demonstrates the programs have value. 

ABMS could face the steepest hurdles, though Roper argues that having only been going “in earnest” for a year and a half,  “we finally created cloud-enabled, AI kill chains that are able to make decisions that would take us tens of minutes today operationally,” he said. That should convince skeptics. 

“When I came into this job, we couldn’t even code in the Air Force,” he said. Today, air operations centers have their own software to improve operations, and there are native Air Force coding efforts, such as Kessel Run, to create apps, and Kobayashi Maru, focused on space operations.

Roper isn’t sure what’s next for him. He spent the past four years coming  into the office every day to “help the military compete against China,” he said. He learned a lot in the process.  

“The Air Force really can change,” Roper said. “I’ve taken back a lot of the things I thought about doing with innovation in a big bureaucracy. You can do it; it just is harder because there are more layers. And it’s hard to message through those layers. And it’s harder to build excitement and energy through them, because there are dampeners in the system. But, if you’re willing to put in the calories to create the energy, the same processes that work at the small organizations work in big ones.”

Indeed, the Air Force has already turned a major corner, Roper asserted. “I’ve seen it, in just the time I’ve been here, transcend its identity [from] being fighters … to innovation,” he said. “And there couldn’t be a better pivot, given the competition that we face.”