Air Force Technology Chief Roper Responds To An Unfolding Crisis In The U.S. Industrial Base

Air Force Technology Chief Roper Responds To An Unfolding Crisis In The U.S. Industrial Base

Dr. Will Roper, the U.S. Air Force’s top acquisition and technology official, is pressing his service to respond quickly and imaginatively to the stresses imposed on military contractors by the spread of coronavirus.

Roper established a COVID-19 acquisition task force within the Department of the Air Force on March 25, and subsequently undertook a series of steps aimed at bolstering the resilience of key companies and their suppliers.

The measures include accelerated payment of prime contractors for work in progress, with the understanding that the primes will pass through much of their improved cashflow to suppliers—especially suppliers whose operations are threatened by the current crisis.

Other military services are implementing similar initiatives to protect the defense industrial base, but Roper’s approach is informed by his belief that Air Force investment programs have a role to play in bolstering competitiveness beyond the narrow confines of military procurement.

Long before the current viral crisis materialized, Roper—who holds a doctorate in mathematics from Oxford—was advocating the use of military investment funds to foster disruptive innovation. He was convinced that companies could leverage digital engineering and rapid software development to produce new weapons much faster and more efficiently.

In Roper’s conception, rapid innovation and early prototyping of military systems could play a decisive role in helping America’s joint force stay ahead of “near peers” like China. And he wasn’t shy about looking outside the traditional defense industry for companies that might be willing to try a different approach to equipping the force.

Now this unusual view of military acquisition is informing how his service is coping with coronavirus. That shouldn’t come as a big surprise, because the Air Force often is viewed as the most technologically sophisticated of the nation’s armed forces, and military spending has long been the closest thing Washington had to a national industrial policy.

Roper clearly sees that the new ideas he espouses have a wider role to play in revitalizing the competitiveness of America’s industrial economy. As I noted in Forbes earlier this week, that economy has not been faring well in the rivalry with China for new markets.

But it could potentially do far better if some of the ideas embraced by Dr. Roper were broadly adopted. Against that backdrop, COVID-19 presents both a threat and an opportunity for Roper’s framework.

On the one hand, non-traditional military suppliers engaged in developing dual-use technologies may be so impaired by current economic stresses that they cannot continue participating in the defense market—a market of secondary importance to many of them.

On the other hand, the impact of coronavirus on U.S. industry is likely to be so severe that new ideas for sustaining competitiveness with countries like China will probably be more welcome. Washington will need to do something more than shovel trillions of dollars into endangered sectors.

Roper’s service has already demonstrated that it is ready to send money if vital contractors face hard times. This week it released over $800 million to Boeing for a delayed tanker program, partly to signal Air Force confidence in the program’s future, and partly to help the nation’s biggest exporter cope with the current crisis.

But Will Roper’s ideas about the role of disruptive innovation in bolstering U.S. competitiveness probably have a bigger role to play in the current crisis. Once Washington succeeds in securing critical infrastructure, including the defense industry, it will need to think about how the nation’s industrial economy recovers from the most devastating setback in living memory.

Simply reverting to where the economy was before the crisis seems unlikely. There will be a constituency for doing things differently in Washington, and that probably includes a more active government role in promoting industrial innovation.

As that process unfolds, the ideas Will Roper has pioneered at the Pentagon may find a far broader political constituency—one that outlives the current pandemic.

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