Addressing the Air Force Association’s 2020 Virtual Air, Space and Cyber conference, Sept. 15, Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, heralded the need for acquisition agility through digital engineering to disrupt the nation’s adversaries.
During his Matrix-inspired virtual keynote, Roper discussed the accomplishments and the future of acquisition for the Department of the Air Force while calling for disruptive agility in order to remain competitive in an ever-innovating global security environment.
“If you look at the world in which we live today, we must be agile,” Roper said. “There are too many possible futures for us to pick one and build a force that’s geared to defeat it.”
With service branch leaders – Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond – making it clear that the Air and Space Forces must accelerate change to win, Roper explained that acquisitions must also evolve, so services can be ready for whatever comes its way – whether it be something like artificial intelligence, ever-present drones, gene editing or human augmentation.
“There’s no telling what the future can hold,” he said. “We have to do our part in acquisition and that means being able to develop war-winning systems at a pace that today’s technology, trends and threats require.”
According to Roper, to do this, the services must invest in a new way of designing and manufacturing.
“The more amazing commercial technology becomes, the more amazing our military technology is going to have to be to overcome the advantages that are available to all,” he said. “The last area that we have to have strategic agility is in being able to computerize or virtualize everything about our development and production, assembly, even sustainment of systems, so that we can finally get past the tyranny of the real world and take learning and feedback into the digital one.”
With the use of digital engineering, Roper said the Air and Space Forces can build unique systems in an environment where unique technology is always being redesigned, optimized and tested digitally, as opposed to using blueprints or computer models “that were good approximations for the physical system, but not the same as the real thing.”
Roper likened the use of digital engineering to that of the movie, “The Matrix.” He explained that with digital engineering, members can learn within an environment where the digital reality is so real, then “wake up” in the real world with that acquired knowledge and less resources spent.
“If we can take things we once did in the physical world-having to design things, build things, integrate things-here we spend lots of money with lots of people,” Roper explained. “If they can go digital, then we can design and build all the time.”
The Air Force has already prescribed to Roper’s idea of the future of design and production. It recently announced its new designator, the eSeries, which includes aircraft-such as the eT-7A Red Hawk-satellites and more that are digitally engineered.
According to Roper, the ability to build an airplane the first time as if it were built 100 times, will open up a paradigm shift for the Air Force and the Space Force. He said that with digital engineering, the learning curve, integration and flying before buying can be a thing of the past if the services choose for it to be so. And it’s not just limited to the computer screen or training aircraft, but it has already allowed the Air Force to design, assemble, test and fly its Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft, in record time.
“NGAD has come so far, that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world and it’s broken a lot of records in the doing, Roper said.”
In order to accelerate change today and ensure maximum agility on future battlefields, the Air and Space Forces must wake up to a new reality where aircraft, weapons and satellites already exist in an exact digital reality before metal is ever cut.
“Digital engineering isn’t a fluke … It is our future,” Roper said. “This is how we provide our forces the capabilities they’ll need to win on the unpredictable, rapidly evolving innovation battlefield in this century by fundamentally changing how we build and acquire systems and with whom we build them, so that no matter what our adversaries do in the future, we will have the agility to overmatch and win. Then we will innovate faster, we will adapt quicker and ultimately stay ahead to disrupt and win.”
Roper noted that to achieve the required agility and speed, the Air and Space Forces must embrace the full potential of the U.S. tech ecosystem, and become a dual-use Air and Space Force that regularly employs cutting edge commercial solutions. Expanding these partnerships while sending a clear, consistent signal to industry on the department’s new approach is imperative.
The Services have already jumped head-first into expanding commercially with programs such as AFVentures, which awarded almost $800 million to companies this fiscal year on programs like Agility Prime flying car program. The space launch program, which awarded contracts for the next five years of launch, established an industrial base that’s capable of launching commercial or military satellites for the nation.
Roper went on to explain that just as the cloud is important at home to ensure interconnectivity, it is essential for the continued development and interoperability of the joint force.
The Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, is an interconnected system that collects, processes and shares data relevant to warfighters in order to make better decisions faster.
“The cloud connection is the most important because that’s where the world of data lives-that’s where AI and analytics live,” Roper said. “It’s all about making the joint force act as if it’s one system of systems, just like the internet.”
During the latest exercise or “onramp,” the ABMS achieved success countering a cruise missile with a hypervelocity gun, a task that is integral to base defense.
“Mark September the third, 2020, on your calendar,” Roper said referring to the onramp’s success. “That might be the watershed moment we’d been waiting for, where you got to see the actual internet, the military’s internet of things come to bear on a problem that could not be solved without machine-to-machine decision-making.”