AF Acquisition Boss Talks Future of Space

  • Published
  • By SMC Public Affairs
  • Space and Missile Systems Center

Dr. William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, visited the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) to discuss the future of space acquisitions, Feb.6. 

As the Department of the Air Force Service Acquisition Executive, Dr. Roper is responsible for and oversees Air Force research, development and acquisition activities totaling over $60 billion for more than 550 acquisition programs. Dr. Roper serves as the principal adviser to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force for research and development, test, production and modernization efforts.

During his two-day visit, Dr. Roper held a town hall where he stressed the duty to continually drive innovation and ‘plant seeds’ for the future generations of space acquirers. He emphasized that failure is a step to success and success without failure means, “you didn’t take enough risk.” 

“Space acquisition is amazing, and early on in this job, looking for where there was an appetite to innovate, to change, and try to compete, it was clearly at this center,” said Roper. 

“I wish we could talk more broadly about our space programs. That’s a real hindrance for us. Classification, I think, holds us back from talking about a lot of wonderful things that are happening in this portfolio,” said Roper during the town hall. “But when you pull back the curtain and look at what’s happening in the space portfolio, it makes me excited about what could be ‘SMC 3.0’ and ‘4.0,’ because if you think that ‘[SMC] 2.0’ is the end, it can’t be. There is no telling where the competition is.”

Roper is worried about the way the current acquisition system works in this century to compete against other peer countries like China. “They’ve got the focus. They’ve got the economy. They’ve got the technical know-how,” said Roper. “They’re not ten feet tall, but they’re the real deal.” 

During his visit, Roper met with junior workforce members, as well, where they discussed industry best practices and innovative ideas that can facilitate lean and agile space acquisitions to outpace adversaries.

“One of the most important things our acquisition force needs to understand is the criticality of delivering continuous, iterative value to the warfighter to give them capability they can use in operations today,” said Capt. Shane Toner, deputy branch chief, acquisition support, Enterprise Ground Services. 

“The days of waiting years to deliver value to the warfighter are gone,” said Toner. “If we are not measuring the timeline in which we deliver value to the warfighter in hours or days, we’ve lost.”

One method of speeding the acquisition process in space that Roper says he is “fighting for” is consolidating funding into two “pots” that would allow money to flow between programs as needed.

“You can’t do smart, slow, in a competition against a capable peer,” said Roper.

He explained that technology evolution is “volatile” in today’s market. Roper’s thought is that the consolidated funds would allow for flexibility and speed that does not exist in the current system, and also facilitate current partnerships and create opportunity for new partnerships.

“I believe Dr. Roper’s idea on how we need to alter the profit model enticing industry to work with the government will be the key to success in not only outpacing our adversaries, but will also keep the Department of Defense relevant in today’s technology discussion,” said Toner. “The importance of leveraging commercial technology for the warfighter with regard to Space cannot be understated given the current [research and development] environment with 20 percent DoD/80 percent private industry split in investment dollars.”

In 2020, SMC plans to partner with more non-traditional government contractors to diversify and aid faster and smarter innovation.

“The DoD space enterprise is less than one-fifth of the space investment currently going on in this country,” said Lt. Gen. John Thompson, SMC commander and Air Force program executive officer for Space. “The rest of it, the other 80 percent, comes from commercial investment. We must have structures, processes and the ability to reach out to the people doing the other 80 of innovation.

“With nontraditional defense contractors, small businesses and potential game changers, we can afford to take risks.”