The program for the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 fighter, managed by the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.,  is at an “inflection point” in which the program needs to reduce sustainment, cost-per-flying hour costs, as the U.S. Air Force looks to double its fleet of the conventional F-35As over the next several years, Air Force acquisiton chief Will Roper said Jan. 14.

“The cost per flying hour is not where we need it to be,” Roper told reporters. “To get it to where it needs to be, I believe investment needs to take place in the program. In terms of how to make that investment, how to put it on contract, how to work a business deal that makes sense with our industry partners, that is the JPO’s purview. I’ve given them inputs that I hope will guide them, but it very much matters at a fleet level for the Air Force. The fleet grows every year, and it will continue to grow. This is the real scale-up period where the fleet will double for the Air Force in just a couple of years so the cost to fly every member of that fleet and what it charges the Air Force every year in terms of operations and sustainment goes directly into whether it allows any money to be left over for the next generation of systems.”

“If we don’t watch it, it could easily take away our seed corn for the future so the next few years will be very important for the program,” Roper said.

DoD and Lockheed Martin have been discussing a five-year performance-based logistics (PBL) contract for the F-35 that Lockheed Martin has said will help the company improve sustainment margins and reduce the cost per flying hour of the aircraft to $25,000 by 2025 (Defense Daily, May 27, 2020).

Reducing F-35 sustainment costs may provide the needed room for the Air Force to bolster its efforts to develop and field a sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter, which may leverage systems on the F-35 to build a faster, more capable, longer-range fighter that the Air Force could upgrade consecutively every few months.

Roper has been an advocate for retiring legacy systems to put toward next-generation systems and moving toward digital engineering in aircraft, weapons and space programs to reduce acquisition times and sustainment costs.

Asked on Jan. 14 what he would most like to see come to fruition in the Air Force’s future, Roper replied that the service must continue to have a culture of innovation that encourages and rewards risk-taking and that NGAD will be important for a whole range of service programs.

“Specifically, what I would like to see get over the goal line would be taking digital engineering to its most fulsome representation in Next Generation Air Dominance because it matters for so much more than building a next generation tactical airplane,” he said. “All of our programs are watching NGAD to see how far they can push the digital envelope, and not just the Air Force, but [U.S.] Space Force. I’ve got every PEO [program executive officer] in Space Force, including our Chief of Space Operations, Gen. [John “Jay”] Raymond, briefed into all of the digital work we’re doing, and now our space programs are following suit, trying to replicate digital practices for satellites.”

While the Biden transition team has reached out to Roper during the transition, it is uncertain whether he will remain after the new administration takes office on Jan. 20 (Defense Daily, Jan. 12).

By early next week, 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).

As Air Force acquisition chief since February, 2018, Roper has labored in the high-technology vineyards to help press the grapes of innovative, risk taking culture into a number of varietal, service wines, including digital engineering, artificial intelligence, NGAD and the Digital Century Series of aircraft, ABMS, hypersonics, the MQ-Next drone, the Skyborg Vanguard program, the attraction of non-traditional suppliers into the Air Force stable, the eSeries of systems with shorter life spans and lower sustainment costs, and the Agility Prime initiative to dovetail with the commercial world’s urban air mobility concept.

Before becoming Air Force acquisition chief, Roper was the director of the Pentagon Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) for more than five and a half years during the Obama administration beginning in August 2012. Roper is a former Rhodes scholar with a master’s of science in physics from Georgia Institute of Technology, a doctorate in mathematics from Oxford University, and other work experience as a missile defense adviser for MIT Lincoln Laboratories and as chief architect for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

Roper said that, before becoming Air Force acquisition chief in 2018, he had been perfectly content in his job as the head of SCO when then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein asked him to step into the acquisition role to help spark innovation in the service.

“I’m not a political person,” Roper said Jan. 14. “I don’t get involved in politics. I certainly have personal views on them, very strong ones, but the reason I come to work every day is to bring the technical knowledge that I have and the ability to, hopefully, lead change and innovation in government, as well as a focus on China. That’s my value proposition for the military, and I keep my eyes on the Air Force every day.”

“Regardless of what is happening, regardless of what I think about it, which I do, China is going to be here for the long term,” he said. “Past any single administration, they have a plan to knock us off the top. That is why I came into defense. That is why I work so hard at this, and, no matter what I do in the future, that is what I want to be a part of, some way of helping tip the scales back toward the U.S.’ favor whether that is inside of government or not. Anytime I’ve been asked to serve, that has been my litmus test, first and foremost, can I make a difference against the China competition.”

That competition, he said, will be an economic and “gray zone” one in which the U.S. military and the rest of the federal government will need “hard science” experts who can devise and carry to fruition new ideas and systems to counter China’s military modernization.

“The military needs help competing against China, and we need more technical people in government,” he said. “There are very few hard science people. I have no idea how you do a job like mine without the hard science background that I have. I use it all the time.”

“The likelihood of a ‘hot war’ with China, I think, is very low,” Roper said. “This is more about an economic competition. China has ambitions in their ‘near abroad’ and beyond. Most of the confrontation in this decade is likely to be in the ‘gray zone’ of economics, lawfare, diplomacy–the things that lie below the level of actual combat, but the military is a foundation that allows you to push back and be bold in that ‘gray zone,’ and it’s not just for us. It’s for our allies and partners as well. Many of them are having to look at China’s mil theory and look at ours and see which one they’re willing to bankroll their maneuvering in the ‘gray zone’ on because if things don’t go well in the ‘gray zone,’ you have to be ready for the confrontation to precipitate into conflict and combat, and that’s where the U.S. military matters.”

The buying of new, advanced technology U.S. military systems by allies and partners will help the U.S. pull ahead of China and reduce the chance of armed conflict, Roper suggested.

“Newness, surprise, disruption–that’s the coin of this realm,” he said. “That’s how we win.”