Will Roper, PhD, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, logistics and technology, discusses his decision to halt deliveries of Boeing’s KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft after an tools and manufacturing debris was found on aircraft already delivered to the, service and the rationale for potentially acquiring new Boeing F-15X fighters to replace aging F-15C jets with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando where our coverage was sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Dr. Will Roper
USAF Acquisition Chief
AFA Air Warfare Symposium
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Orlando, Florida covering the Air Force Association’s Annual Air Warfare Symposium, the number one winter gathering of U.S. Air Force leaders from around the world, as well as industry executives, media and thought leaders. Our coverage is sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.
And we’re continuing our conversation with the Acquisition Chief of the United States Air Force, Dr. Will Roper who has had a breakneck time, and I’m sandwiched between near the end of this conference, and your meeting with the Chief. So I know that time is precious.
You made an announcement to reporters about suspending KC-46 deliveries. Boeing was very proud that it had finally started delivering it. There was relief in the Air Force. I know that it’s early right now, but what do we know in terms of what the problem is, and whether or not it’s going to be a significant delay for a program that the Air Force and everybody has been waiting for delivery for some time?
Dr. Will Roper: Sure, Vago. It’s a foreign object debris issue. That’s where material was found on airplanes that shouldn’t be there. We’re just at the beginning of trying to diagnose the root cause of the problem. Boeing has 13 corrective action plans that they’re working. They should be delivered to us today. The team will go through them. We’re going to make sure they trace back to what we believe is the source of the problem. And I plan to go out to Boeing and to walk the line and talk with the team.
I don’t expect this is going to take a long time. This is not unusual, but it’s certainly not acceptable because foreign object debris causes a safety issue. But until we’re confident that the issue has been addressed we’re going to keep planes up at the factory and not keep acceptance.
I wish I could say more. I’ve had a deep dive with my team on the phone, but that’s not the same as actually going through the data myself.
Mr. Muradian: Understood, and I know how important the program is and how important it is to get it right.
I want to ask you one other sort of programmatic question because normally we talk about strategic issues. Let me ask you about the F-15X. Talk to us a little bit about this proposal. There are folks, friends of mine in the Air Force. The message has been for a long time no more new old airplanes. And then all of a sudden the 15X proposal is in. The Secretary yesterday and the Chief sort of acknowledged that it wasn’t their idea necessarily.
Where is this idea coming from and why is it unfolding the way it is, given that the Air Force has said all of our resources should be going to those 5th generation new airplanes to do that leap-ahead?
Dr. Roper: We certainly want 5th generation. We want as many 5th generation fighters as we can have. Seventy-two per year is the number of fighters that we need to replenish those that are retiring.
So I can’t confirm or deny whether F-15EX is in the budget that’s been submitted if it hasn’t been delivered to Congress yet, but I will say the Air Force always wants as many of the airplanes that are in its budget to be as 5th generation as possible.
That being said, let me give you a few reasons why one might consider an F-15EX. The F-15Cs have been flown hard. They are well past the end of their expected service life. I’ve personally been through their maintenance out at the depot at Tinker. We are waiting in some cases over a year for parts. Maintenance takes an exceptionally long time. And even with buying the max number of 5th gen fighters that we can produce in the F-35 line, we’re going to have 4th generation fighters in the Air Force for at least a decade.
So I could see why replacing the C’s with an F-15EX would make sense, especially given that foreign partners have put so much research and development dollars into their upgraded variants. It would give us a better variant of the system. It wouldn’t increase the logistic support, we could just roll that into the existing fleet. But what I don’t want anyone to think is that the Air Force now sees a role for 4th generation systems in the peer competitor fight.
We’ve put a lot of time and effort into getting to 5th gen. The F-35 is an awesome machine, it’s an awesome fuser of data. And the thing that we don’t talk about as much is its ability to quarterback and to be a helper of other systems that are coming into the fight. It’s doing very well in testing. That’s the fighter that we want.
So we’re very anxious to make sure that our buys are completely 5th gen, but if we can’t buy a total 5th gen force I can understand why some would say well why don’t we replace the
Mr. Muradian: But is this an idea that came from the Hill? Did it come from the White House? Did it come from OSD in terms of hey, do that? Because every year, I’ve talked to every Air Force leader about hey, how do we move up that ramp to try to get as many F-35s, for example, as we can at a given time?
Dr. Roper: I don’t know the genesis of the idea. I know the Air Force is all in on 5th gen. But just telling you as the Acquisition Exec, looking into why an F-15EX might make sense, it appears to me to hinge on the retirement of the F-15C and the need to have 4th gen at least for another decade to do the homeland defense mission, coupled with the significant multi-billion dollars of investment by foreign partners.
Mr. Muradian: Is there an industrial base consideration also? A lot of folks have been talking about that. Hey, bolster St. Louis, its ability to compete. With MQ-25 and with TX you have a much more robust future capability. Is there some thinking about that at all in the decision-making?
Dr. Roper: Again, not confirming whether or not it’s in our budget or not, but in the case of a fighter, industry base is important but that should be important to you for future capability and development. In terms of capabilities we’re going to buy and take into the fight, we need things that are going to be dominant, not things that are going to force warfighters to work against superior machines.
So a 4th generation system, no matter how upgraded it’s been by research and development, is not equivalent to a 5th generation system.
So the Air Force is committed to as increasingly as possible a 5th generation force. But in the interim, as we look at the future we’re going to have to contend with having 4th generation systems. And if we don’t pursue an F-15EX in our budget, if that does not end up being in it, then we’re going to have to have a solution for keeping the F-15s that we have continuing to operate and increasingly difficult parts/maintenance issues.