On National Security | Early excitement (and questions) about new Air Force weapons buyer

by

This column originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The recent news about the nomination of Pentagon procurement “disruptor” Will Roper to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition has reverberated across the industry, stirring up speculation about what new ideas he might bring into air and space modernization programs.

The initial reaction is that this could be good news for the burgeoning commercial space industry that is now driving the innovation agenda. “Roper’s record suggests he will favor less complex solutions for accomplishing space missions,” said industry consultant Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

A looming question is whether Roper’s embrace of commercial technology as head of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office will lead to changes in how the Air Force buys satellites and launch services. Industry insiders see Roper’s philosophy aligning with that of Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, who has chastised the Air Force for favoring large, so-called exquisite satellites that make “juicy targets” for the enemy.

The obvious alternative is to buy a larger number of less expensive satellites. Thompson sees Roper possibly making bold moves in this area. “It’s hard to build resilience and flexibility into a space constellation when each node costs a billion dollars,” he said. “The question, though, is whether this can be achieved without a significant loss of capability.”

A transition to commercial technology will require tradeoffs, a concept that Roper has championed. Does a missile warning satellite need to have both a staring and a scanning sensor? Well, no, but it will function more effectively if it does. Thompson predicts Roper’s penchant for “better-faster-cheaper” solutions will be challenged in areas like space launch because while non-traditional providers may be less expensive, they are also less reliable.

Space industry adviser Mike Tierney of Jacques & Associates said companies in the commercial sector are excited about the Roper nomination and hope he can break a lot of china. “A lot of the rhetoric is very positive,” he said. “But industry will want to see actual change in acquisition strategies and in procurements.” Executives who have worked with Roper have been impressed, Tierney said. “When folks in the industry would want to engage with DoD about commercial or available technology that would fill mission need, it was Dr. Roper that they would go see,” he said. “There’s established relationships.”

With regard to space, “He’s got tremendous familiarity with the space systems architecture,” Tierney said. “I think people are encouraged.”

It will be interesting to see if Roper is able to bridge what some see as a widening gap between the defense and the commercial markets. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told an industry audience this month that she worries the military is “too hard to work with” and that arcane procurement methods scare away many companies in the space and technology sectors that otherwise would consider jumping into the military market.

Government contracting expert Karri Palmetier, a former United Launch Alliance lawyer who advises small businesses, pointed to the dichotomy Roper and other leaders have to contend with. “Reform is needed to allow innovation because DoD is hard to work with,” she said. But the complex Pentagon procurement process will continue to exist because the military has unique needs. “The trick will be to find ways to use, adapt, modify or overhaul the acquisition system to adjust to each acquisition as appropriate.”

The Air Force is in a tough position when it comes to space. As space comes under threat, there is growing pressure to modernize but the military is not willing to take risks with technology. And that could deter efforts to push commercial solutions. Some commercial firms are a bit naïve about the realities of the military market, analysts caution. The NewSpace community is offering apps and services that the military may not be prepared to buy. The traditional contractors know that it will take major muscle movements in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill to get dollars obligated and capabilities on orbit.

Is the rhetoric going to be matched by actions and dollars? “We’re not there yet,” said Tierney. “But the personnel changes are positive.”