Air Force’s Roper on Cutting Time and Changing Metrics for Success


Will Roper, PhD, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, talks about innovation, accelerating acquisition pace and changing metrics of success, now prioritizing time, during an interview with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference held at the Gaylord National Harbor. Our Air, Space and Cyber Conference coverage is sponsored Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.

Dr. Will Roper

Acquisition Executive USAF

AFA 2018 Air, Space, Cyber Conference

September 2018

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian.  I’m here at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference and Trade Show, the world’s largest gathering of Air Force leaders from around the world to discuss the future of the world’s most powerful Air Force. The United States Air Force.  Our coverage here is sponsored by Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies, and Leonardo DRS.

We’re positively honored to have with us Dr. Will Roper who is the Acquisition Executive for the United States Air Force, the busiest man at this show by far.

I’m sure nobody’s been asking you about any big decisions like TX or anything else today at all, have they?

Dr. Will Roper:  No, I haven’t been asked that one time, and I’m sure I won’t be again.

There’s a lot going on in Air Force Acquisition and I’m really glad that we have the broad interest.  There are a lot of things that I won’t be able to discuss, but there are a lot of things that I can.  It’s important that we engage industry frequently because if we don’t, how do they know the reforms that we’re doing?  How do they know what we’re looking for for the future.  So I put being here one of the most important things I’m going to do this year as the Air Force Acquisition Exec.

Mr. Muradian:  You were remarkably open as the head of the Strategic Capabilities Office with the media talking to us sometimes, you know, in some detail and even unveiling things when you would talk to us.  Talk to us, though a little bit about your massive agenda.  You want to take 100 years out of, you know, your century goal which is highly ambitious.  You want to accelerate, you want to improve innovation.  You certainly want to shore up software capabilities which are integral to innovating over the long term.  You want to accelerate programs.

All of that is a massive cultural change to re-gear how people think, which is the hardest challenge, and behave.  Talk to us a little bit about the ways that you’re driving this to inculcate it so that you get that traction, so that a couple of years ago it’s not like hey, you know, I’m just going to hold my breath and the Will Roper wave is going to pass me and then I can get back to doing business the way it should be done.

Dr. Roper:  It is a big change.  You can call it a cultural change, but it’s really just changing one key metric.

So if you grow up in acquisition you’re trained to track dollars and cents 100 different ways. Where you’re spending it with different vendors, where you’re spending it on services.  So it tells our workforce we care about where the dollars go and we want to spend the fewest dollars possible, and there’s nothing wrong with saving money for the taxpayer.  We should.

But the shift that we’re making in the Air Force is to value time more.  We won’t be the most dominant Air Force if we can’t build things faster than other adversaries.

So we’ve had the audacity in Air Force acquisition to say time’s the most important metric, and not just to say that, but to put out a challenge to try to make every day count for us.  So we are going to try to remove 100 years out of our acquisition portfolio.  That was a challenge that was given out a little less than five months ago.  We’re already at 56 years.  That’s a great response.  And I’m seeing the reduction in schedule times across the board.  B-52 re-engining, hypersonics, F-22 software. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to what type of programs can and can’t be accelerated.

So I just view this as telling the workforce what we value, and then rewarding them when they do it.  And a lot of what I learned at SCO is being applied here.  When you can prototype something instead of studying it for years, you get out of the starting gates faster, you learn quicker, you retire risk faster.  If your concept is flawed you get rid of it.  There’s something about contact with industry and building metal early that leads to common sense in the acquisition program.

We’ve also got great relationships with the warfighters.  That’s something I certainly enjoyed at SCO and I continue to enjoy here in the Air Force.  We can’t go build something quickly and rapidly, not cut corners but change requirements without the requirements owner working with us.  No one wants to have a 100 percent solution that’s going to field 15 years from now.  That’s just not responsive in today’s world.  Warfighters are looking for something at 90 percent that they can have in five years.

But when we start out a program, we’re not smart enough to know what’s the ten percent we need to take out to deliver on time.  You learn that by doing and working with industry.  So these new authorities that we’re applying, the Section 804 and the tailored 5000 are really just about creating a cycle with the operator where we get a thin set of requirements, we start out in prototype, we fly before we buy.  Then we come back and tell the operator here’s where your 90 percent knee in the curve bends.  Is that good enough for us to go buy for you in quantity?  Or do you want us to spiral again because you need us to move up higher?

It’s common sense, but that’s what has been missing in acquisition is common sense and the ability to let that program manager, that material leader or senior material leader make the call.  It’s better in their hands working with the operator who’s going to use it and coming into the Pentagon to go through a thousand wickets of bureaucracy.

Mr. Muradian:  That message about time was Dr. Carter, right?  When Dr. Carter took office he said time is the most important metric we have in terms of being able to pull it out.  Obviously, also, from a competitive standpoint, and the B-21 would be a good example of what you guys did, right?  Do a little bit of prototyping, thinking through each one of the systems to allow the final product to move a little bit more quickly.

Talking about requirements, one of the, you know, we either put too many requirements in or too little and get ourselves into trouble.  How do you strike that sweet spot, for example?  Integrate power competition.  Folks have had a tendency of forgetting sustainability.  You’re going to be shot at while you’re trying to sustain these systems.  That’s going to be a challenge.  You want to reduce that logistical burden.  How does that play?  And will you be willing to trade off say 10 percent of capability to say hey, you know what, for better or for worse, here’s stuff that we have in inventory, we’re going to stick with what we have in inventory.  It may not be the most cutting edge but it allows us to get a faster cycle time.

Talk to us a little bit about how you’re thinking through the requirements piece of this to get it just right.

Dr. Roper:  We’ve got to think through the entire life cycle at the beginning of the program.  We have too many cautionary tales where we just thought about [rote] performance and we didn’t think about producibility or sustainability, and now we are where we are.

Think about the F-35 and other programs that have been cautionary tales of not thinking about the full life cycle up front.

So the Air Force has learned that lesson.  For programs like B-21 and others, we are thinking through the whole life cycle when we’re at the up-front engineering phase.

So I view that as a lesson learned and a box checked.

Now as we move into rapid acquisitions where we have the ability to tailor acquisition requirements, that is going to be interesting because we’re just at the beginning. We’re still really bringing operators development options.  We want to build a hypersonic weapon; the operator wants it to go a certain range. We can only provide 90 percent of it. Is that good enough?

It’s going to be interesting as we move past the pure performance into the long-term producibility and sustainability, to try to bring those traits to the operator.

We tend to talk about cost, schedule, performance.  But the cost goes far beyond that early phase of the acquisition, right?  Seventy percent of our acquisition budget goes into sustainment, but we rarely talk about that side of the budget.  It’s not the sexy side that makes the newspapers.  But if we can’t get that side down, the costs down in sustainment, we’re going to afford fewer and fewer developments.  That really is a net assessment view of the operational portfolio, but I don’t see any way to get out of that.  We’re going to have to be more strategic thinkers between acquisition and requirement if we’re going to be able to make the right decisions across an entire portfolio of capabilities.

So I predict that’s something we’ll have to do.  We haven’t earned our way to that problem yet.

Mr. Muradian:  Even though you haven’t earned your way to the problem, what do you think may be the right ways to tackle it?  I know you’ve spent some time thinking about it because it’s funny you mentioned net assessment.  That’s a very Andy Marshall way of looking at the problem, right?  If it’s something that is going to impose cost on us, we want to try and avoid it.  So what do you think are some things that the Air Force and the entire military ecosystem can do to try to get you to that better balance point?

Dr. Roper:  I think some of the initial programs will teach us the lessons.  I’ll give you a specific one.  So hypersonics is something I’m bound and determined to get over the goal line in this job, and knowing I was coming here I was able to get some of the things that we were working on in SCO focused on helping the Air Force accelerate its hypersonics program.

So one of the cool things about being in this job now is I’m sort of catching a pass that I threw in my old job.  Not even Tom Brady can throw a pass to himself in football.

So we’re combined with great engineers in OSD to help us accelerate hypersonics.  That’s great.  We’re already seeing that that’s a program that will naturally lead itself to a block development spiral approach.  So as we get into spiral one, which we’re hoping that we will get that ready to IOC by the end of calendar year ’20, early calendar year ’21.  I mean we are going to be that aggressive. But I’m going to predict that’s probably not the hypersonic weapon that we want to buy in a large quantity.  It will be capable, but it won’t be the knee in the curve on capability, meaning we could put more dollars into spiral development and get more out of it and maybe get lower sustainment costs.

I think it’s going to be one of the first programs where we’re going to show an operator here’s spiral one, two, three.  Here’s the capability.  Here’s the producibility cost, so that’s just the per unit cost, and here’s long-term sustainment.  And we’re going to have to balance for them, depending on which one they pick, it changes the amount of spirals we can do in other programs.

So when you do acquisition now, you very much do it one program at a time.  And now that we’re getting back into peer competition, we simply can’t do it that way anymore.  We’re going to have to think like portfolio architects.  A little less like net assessment, thinking about 30 years to the future, but we’re going to have to think through the FYDP and maybe through ten years of development.

So I think the first programs out of the gate, hypersonics, and others, will help teach us the lessons and at a minimum just put their finger on the problems we’re going to have to solve, and hopefully, we’ll be smart enough to get the lessons learned and out to the force.

Mr. Muradian:  Do you have an estimate in your mind of how much innovation can save that then can be reinvested in capability?  Is there, you said 56 years in terms of year savings towards your century goal.  Do you have a number, do you think you can get 15 or 20 percent that you’re going to save in terms of faster put speed prototyping, figuring out what the right calls are, smarter logistical decisions?  Do you have an aggregate number that you and the Air Staff and the Chief and the Secretary have discussed to be able to say hey, ma’am, I can get you an extra $10 billion a year starting in two or three years that can be reinvested?

Dr. Roper:  I’ve got an unofficial goal that I’ll hit at the end.  I want to give you a little bit of preamble first.

So the sustainment side of the Air Force has been where I’ve done the most learning.  I didn’t see that in SCO.  We did development.  The sustainment side of the Air Force is where 70 percent of our budget is. It’s where very little R&D dollars go for innovation.  But there are many commercial technologies that could significantly help us. Maintenance is an area where Artificial Intelligence can shine.  Logistics is an area where data science could provide value back to us.  Saving money, upping efficiency, increasing aircraft availability.  3D printing, which we’ve been looking for to change development for decades, could have a huge value on sustainment.  Already is. The Air Force is printing hundreds of parts today, saving a lot of money.

So one of the first things that I realized coming into the Air Force is we don’t have a senior acquisition official that rises through the ranks because they’re a great sustainer, they’re innovative.  We tend to promote people based on being great at acquisition and development.

So we’re creating a new office called the Rapid Sustainment Office.  We’ve got a Rapid Capabilities Office.  We’re saying that model, but for sustainment.  Reporting to the top.  Rapid, high tech, not doing hundred-year solutions, keeping it tailored and quick and responsive to the warfighter.

We’re going to do it on a two-year trial period, but it’s got an interesting metric that we’re going to measure the office by.  We want it to be cost-negative.  Meaning its budget has to directly translate into cost savings for the Air Force.  And I believe it can be because the initiatives I see going, cold spray to repair machine parts are saving in some cases $100,000 on engine parts.  Stripping paints using lasers on robots as opposed to stripping by hand are saving a million dollars per B-1.  Predictive maintenance is saving millions on C-5s.  So I see the savings but it’s being done at kind of a thousand flowers blooming approach.

Mr. Muradian:  Piece-meal.

Dr. Roper:  Very piece-meal where they’re champions of innovation sustainment, they get a little bit of money to solve a local problem.  The idea is pulling them together into one enterprise that tries to be the tie that raises all the boats together.

And the reason I think this can work is if you look on the development side of the house, we have an organization like this.  It’s our research lab.  It’s meant to create the technologies that all of the program offices can use.  We don’t have its analog in sustainment.

So we’re going to experiment with this for two years, and my hope would be that we could see five to ten percent savings quickly.  If we saw that, that’s two or three more development programs that we can be pushing new technologies to keep our warfighting edge.  I’ve been told by industry experts, I’ve been around to see commercial airlines, I’ve been to see commercial logistics companies, I’ll leave their names out.  They’re willing to partner with us, to do public/private partnership.  We’re excited about exploring them because we can learn a lot from companies that do this for a living.  We’re getting like a tenth of a percent out of cost is a big deal.  We don’t have that same discipline, and we should get it.

Mr. Muradian:  I just remember being at Corona many years ago and United Airlines gave a briefing to Corona about saving gas, which was an extraordinary briefing, on how to reduce engine run time and everything else.

In terms of freeing up resources, the Secretary’s goals are very, very ambitious.  She wants to add 70-some-odd squadrons to the force.  You could argue the service needs it.  In fact, I was talking to a friend of mine and the Air Force is the indispensable service in any of the theaters, whether it’s to move, shoot, or communicate.  So that end strength will be valuable.  But at the end of the day, it also comes with a carrying cost.

In order to be able to free up resources to do what you need to do, increase the size of the bomber force, for example, perhaps accelerate the F-35 fielding.  We talked to Greg Ulmer at the F-35 program about that a little bit.  Do you think that bigger muscle movements may be needed to say hey, look, here’s X number of aircraft that we are going to retire, reap savings, redirect toward acquisition?  Do you think that you can take that kind of risk now to get rid of some of the things that are your most expensive platforms, even though it’s going to be politically challenging and difficult?  That’s the first part of the question.

The second part of the question is how many of these ideas can you share and exchange with the other military services to find out, for example, that hey, the Army may have a logistics technology that scratches an itch you have for aircraft engine maintenance, for example?

Dr. Roper:  So there’s going to be a lot that we can do.  Where to begin?  We have to be able to retire airplanes that are past the life expectancy that was originally put into the program.  Airplanes are expensive to upkeep, especially at the end of their lives.  I’ve been surprised at how much of the Air Force is geriatric.  I mean we are keeping these planes alive.  We can’t get the parts.  We’re having to repair them.  What’s driving us to innovation is we can’t get parts so it’s forcing us to think.

But that’s not where innovation really ought to take place.  It should take place on real problems that are being imposed on us by an adversary, not programs we’re creating for ourselves.

I’ve always joked, I was out at the Sustainment Center this past week, at Tinker Air Force Base, going through what it takes for them to keep these old planes running. I was joking with them that we need to create a new milestone called Milestone E which is E for expensive. That’s out where the plane is past its life and we have to dump a lot more money than we should to keep it going.

These are great airplanes, so planes that a lot of people that they grow up, they’re in leadership on the Hill or in the department, they don’t want them to go away because they were important in their day.

We’ve got to have discipline to retire them or else, to your point, we’re not going to free up enough resources to invest in the future.

So we’re going to have to do that.

As I look beyond that, I think there’s a lot that we can learn in terms of expanding the Air Force, growing the Air Force, which is the Secretary’s vision.  There’s a lot we can do in focusing on logistics and sustainment as an area to reap the efficiencies we often want to get in development.  I really don’t see a lot of efficiencies in development. You’re not going to weld faster, you’re not going to turn a wrench faster.  The efficiency or acceleration that we’re getting in acquisition isn’t coming through like Lean Six Sigma approach, it’s just simply coming through starting to build faster.

But when I look over on the sustainment side of our enterprise, it’s a huge playground for data science and logistics.  I had a maintainer tell me maintenance isn’t rocket science.  I looked at him and I said but it is data science and we’re not doing data science in the Air Force.

I’ve had commercial airlines say you should save 10 percent off the top, without trying.  Ten percent of 70 percent of the Air Force budget is huge.

So that’s an area that we should really be focused, and I’ll tell you why.  This is something I did not know about the Air Force coming in. I worked in SCO with the Air Force, but until you’re in it and you’re forced to see the total Air Force, I didn’t realize how much like a delivery company we are.  We are a major logistics company.  You can put a push pin in the globe and the Air Force can put an airplane there and sustain it.  That means it’s got all of the logistics back support.  It’s got the tankers, it’s got the ground crew, it’s got the maintenance to keep flying.  When you pay for the Air Force, you pay for something that can respond today no matter where you put that push pin in the world.

So we focus a lot on the tip of that spear, and we should.  A lot of high-tech technology should go there.  But the only way I see we’re going to afford that as we grow the Air Force is to make the base that supports it more and more efficient.  And as I’ve talked with maintainers and sustainers, they’re some of my heroes.  They’re some of the most innovative people I have seen, but they’re doing it on a nickel and dime budget.

So I hope while I’m in this position I can increase the resources that they have, because I think that will decrease the total expenditure of the Air Force.

Mr. Muradian:  You’re going to get, I’m going to get the hook and you’re going to get the hook in a second, but is there anything you’re picking up from your sister services? What’s the process you’re using to share some of these and pull some lessons from them as well?  Because the Navy’s got some great corrosion technology. Army has a whole series of, you know, their expertise in bearings, coatings.  Do you see cooperation?  And how are you institutionalizing that?

Dr. Roper:  We are.  The three Service Acquisition Execs meet routinely.  Our Service Secretaries meet.  There’s a lot that we can share.

One thing I have learned is that being an Acquisition Exec in each service is different. So I’ve been surprised that Bruce Jetty and Honda, who I know well, I mean we talk and commiserate about how frustrating it is to work within the bureaucracy.  But doing ship acquisition is very different than airplanes.  For instance, we’re all 3D printing, but the Air Force is coming at it more from a scientific point of view because we need to be able to get that airplane certified to go on an aircraft in a repeatable way.  So we’re printing parts that are mission critical now.  But we have to be able to certify that they’re safe to go on an aircraft in a safety critical function.

Well, that’s different than something the Army could be working on, printing something that goes on artillery but just needs to be load bearing.  It needs to be strong.

So we are talking, we are sharing things like this.  But the overlap isn’t as big as you would think.

An area, though, that we are having big overlap is in the emerging small drone threat.  Something I worried about a lot in my last job. It’s a threat we all face.  We’re all working on technologies to take it out. And we’re starting to pull together a forum where the services can work on this problem jointly.

So I don’t know if we’ll share as much on the acquisition side lessons learned, maybe. But I think on enabling technologies we’ll continue to be putting things on the table so that we don’t pay for them twice.

Mr. Muradian:  Sir, Dr. Will Roper, Air Force Acquisition Executive.  Sir, thanks very, very much.  I really appreciate it and look forward to talking to you again soon.

Dr. Roper:  Thanks.  A great interview.


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