Roper: Defense Acquisition in ‘Uncharted Territory’

Praising the Air Force’s acquisition workforce response to the COVID-19 pandemic, service acquisition chief Will Roper on March 23 warned it will have to improvise a new way of conducting business.

Previous efforts to “empower our workforce and delegate unprecedented decision authority [in order] to accelerate programs has put us in a good position to respond to present challenges,” Roper said in a message to his organization. While prioritizing the health of the workforce and ensuring that “workloads are manageable, … everything we do cannot be shifted online, so our teams have restricted to mission-essential meetings and travel, while still getting the job done,” he said.

Roper expressed amazement “at how little disruption entered our programs despite all the disruption around them,” and he said the Air Force leadership is discussing pushing even more decision-making authority and providing “more resources” to low levels.

However, “looking ahead, defense acquisition is in uncharted territory” and the challenges “evolve daily.”

Roper warned against a “tunnel vision” and excessive focus on near-term issues only, and said that long-term experimentation, such as the Airborne Battle Management System, will continue, if at a later time. The next ABMS experiment has been pushed back from April to June.

“We started leveraging the program’s tabletONE and phoneONE multi-level connection technology now to improve communication across our distributed remote workforce,” in support of the experiment, Roper said. USAF is using ONE to name the different services and technologies that are part of ABMS.

When the pandemic forced the postponement of the South by Southwest conference in Texas, “we pivoted from a months-planned, multi-day small business tech event to an online virtual one. With less than 72 hours to pivot, the AFVentures team hosted over 5,000 people from across the U.S. in a single-day Virtual Collider and Pitch Bowl, keeping our Air and Space Force commitment to small businesses and tech startups.” The event marked “the single largest small business award in government history, nearly $1B. This is the new normal of what we can achieve!”

Roper said there were many examples of innovation in the face of the pandemic, which leaves him hopeful “we will slalom through obstacles next week and weeks after. … I have the utmost confidence that our Air Force and Space Force acquisition teams will get through this unprecedented time and be a stronger department for it.”