The transition team of President-elect Joe Biden has reached out to U.S. Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper about a possible role in the new administration, but Roper is so far planning to leave his position before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.
Roper has been a fierce advocate for retiring legacy systems and moving toward digital engineering in aircraft, weapons and space programs to reduce acquisition times and sustainment costs. Before his departure, Roper hopes to deliver an acquisition strategy for the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)–the planned Air Force component of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2). The latter is a DoD effort to build a cross-service digital architecture for multi-domain operations–in effect, a military Internet of Things with machine-to-machine interfaces.
The Air Force has requested $3.3 billion for ABMS over five years, but Congress has had concerns about the lack of requirements, a well-defined ABMS acquisition strategy and program cost estimates. Last November, Roper signed a memorandum designating the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) as the program executive office (PEO) for ABMS and said that the service would, in consultation with Air Force Chief Architect Preston Dunlap, submit an acquisition strategy for ABMS by the end of February (Defense Daily, Nov. 24, 2020).
Another area that Roper promoted was hypersonics to ensure conventional, long-range strike and possibly rapid cargo deliveries. The Air Force had planned a booster flight test of the hypersonic, Lockheed Martin [LMT] AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) by the end of last year, but that test will not happen until later this year, the Air Force said.
Roper’s tenure has also seen the Agility Prime initiative to dovetail with the commercial world’s urban air mobility efforts, research and development and a first test flight for the sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, the attraction of non-traditional suppliers into the Air Force acquisition fold, and the eSeries of systems with planned shorter life spans and lower sustainment costs.
“It could be that the NGAD prototype was disruptive, and leads to something fieldable, or it might have been a science-fair experiment,” Richard Aboulafia, the vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, wrote in an email. “Ditto for the flying car concept. I’m not a fan of the Digital Century Series idea, but it too might lead to a new approach.”
Aboulafia has said that the $1.7 billion NGAD prototype may require another decade’s worth of $10 billion-$20 billion in development before fielding and that “using a Century Series type program to keep design teams intact, and competition going in the industry, may have little hope against corporate downsizing.”
Yet, he also suggested that NGAD may leverage the systems on the Lockheed Martin F-35 into a “faster, more capable, longer-range aircraft.” NGAD indeed may forge a path ahead for systems that the Air Force can rapidly upgrade.
While time will tell if Roper’s ideas take hold, “introducing new thinking is a positive on its own,” Aboulafia said.