The Air Force is pushing to cut 100 years from its total contracting time with a focus on building out its agile software development capacity and looking to “kill the major defense acquisition program” with digital engineering, the service’s acquisition chief said Friday.

Will Roper, the assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told attendees at a Mitchell Hour event the Air Force has to accept more risk and reward contracts faster to beat peer competitors to market and open up major program opportunities to smaller innovative companies.

Air Force acquisition chief William Roper (Photo courtesy of Air Force)

“We’re down to just a few tactical aircraft manufacturers. We once had dozens. That tells us that we need to shake ourselves and come up with a new model,” Roper said. “What I think digital engineering could do for the Air Force is allow us to compete things more frequently and not buy the large quantities that the major defense acquisition programs have come to expect. For us to truly be the next-generation Air Force that we all so covet, we’ve got to kill the major defense acquisition program as it is today.”

Roper said continuing to cut down on contracting time by accepting risk and implementing “mechanism reforms” will allow the Air Force to broaden its partnerships for future technology opportunities.

The Air Force has already reduced its total contracting schedules by 60 years through new Section 804 acquisition authorities, with officials pushing to reach 100 years before Secretary Heather Wilson steps down from her post at the end of May.  

“We’re going to keep encouraging people to take risk, because it will pull time out of our programs,” Roper said.

Officials are specifically pushing to integrate agile software development across current Air Force programs and future development efforts, including taking advantage of the service’s 10 new software factories to potentially push new code out in weeks or days.

“Agile [development] is happening faster in the Air Force than I would have predicted,” Roper said. “Expect over the next coming months, we’ll announce a pretty cool software challenge that we’re going to do on one of our biggest programs to show that going fast and doing amazing things in software isn’t just for small endeavors. We can do this with major acquisition programs.”

Roper said the Air Force’s Kessel Run software factory in Boston is getting ready to push its first delivery for the F-35’s ground-based logistics systems.

“This month, we’ll deploy the first agile delivery out for ALIS, which should take about 10 to 15 hours of work out of our maintainer logs every week,” Roper said.

A new emphasis on digital engineering is aimed at mechanizing speed of contract awards by building in the ability to rapidly update requirements and reshape the Air Force’s developmental modeling.

“Digital engineering is awesome. It might be the game changer for the future Air Force. It might be the biggest technology that affects our warfighting lethality on my watch on this job,” Roper said.