Roper Discusses Crucial Changes for the Future of Defense Industries
Undeterred by the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. Air Force remains focused on achieving transformation in the defense industrial base. On Tuesday 9 June, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics, Dr. Will Roper, sat down with the Mitchell Institute, to offer insight into his latest thinking about the future of aerospace and defense industries and what innovations we need to compete with our adversaries.
Roper explained that long term strategic competition is the main concern driving the Air Force’s transformation agenda. A fundamental technological goal for the U.S. is to develop fast and agile defense capabilities that consistently force adversaries to react to us. Roper stated that in the future, the challenge of performance will hold less importance than it has in the past. Realistically, technology is cheap, and will become more so with the forthcoming introduction of digital industries. Roper promoted the transformational impact of the “Digital Holy Trinity,” a new defense innovation paradigm encompassing the incorporation of digital engineering, software development, and modular open system design. Once implemented, Roper argued this digital transformation will create the steady state performance and adaptability that our industries require to compete with countries like China.
Roper believes we must recognize that China will continue be a threat unless our industrial base changes. Dr. Roper stated that “we are not going to beat China long term if they have a nationalized industrial base, when we only have a subset that crash every year,” under the competitive pressure of other programs. In response to this concern, he believes that revitalizing our industries, through the integration of military and commercial markets, will prevail over their nationalized industrial base. “We need a new industrial base model that’s not a defense industrial base model. An industrial base model where companies can work in defense because they are technology companies, and technology is what enables cutting edge defense, but that company can still work on the commercial sector as well.“ In essence, Roper thinks that China’s process of “picking winners and losers” will not provide the same innovation and success that this market competition will in the future.
Roper links the recent success of both industry revitalization and achievement of strategic technology innovation to regulatory reform. Currently, the U.S. must compete to become the first country to bring projects like the quantum colliders and autonomous pilot “R2D2” into action. Succeeding with these projects requires an easier and faster process for allowing new companies to enter the defense industry.
Roper suggests that creating a steady demand for ideas to move from research labs to business is a significant difficulty in this process. Recent regulatory changes have already shown success. The former regulation heavy introduction timeline, previously taking 6 years, has been cut down to merely months. In response to this quicker system, Roper stated that over 1000 new companies have joined the aerospace industrial base in the last 18 months alone. Funding is another area that has recently improved but also has room to grow. Most recently, the DOD has begun matching funds of private investors to incentivize the steady funding of these programs.
Roper continued to highlight the widely successful impact of digital design in programs like the development of the T7 Red Hawk. The benefit of digital engineering is that one can change the design, remodel, and improve a system without a production line, and look at sustainment to avoid high costs. Roper explains this as a digital thread, where all designs are tied together to avoid assembly lines. Roper believes that the development of aircraft should follow the automotive industry. Similarly, the aircrafts will change and update year by year to avoid significantly changing the cost.
It is evident that the government needs companies to adopt new modes of hardware and software development for the industrial base to compete with our adversaries. A successful transition to peak competitiveness requires steady funding of the “Digital Holy Trinity” by public and private funders. Moreover, Roper encourages all companies to lean forward to make these changes, noting that changes must be fully digital, or the program will be analog. The message from Roper is clear: both government and industry need to modernize to win the innovation competition.