USAF Wants to Use its Buying Power to Boost US Economy—and Build Self-Flying Cars

Assistant Air Force Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Will Roper delivers a Sept. 16 keynote address at AFA's 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

The Air Force is already using its buying power as a lever to help the US space launch and satellite communications industries grow and compete globally. Now it wants to help the nascent autonomous transportation business as well, the service’s acquisition chief, Will Roper, said Sept. 16 at AFA’s 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

“I’ve been challenging our acquisition community … to think about where our defense market has value, and there’s an area we’re excited to explore with commercial industry and that is the self-flying cars technology boom that we think will happen,” he said. Some analysts believe that autonomous transportation, on the ground and later in the air, will create hundreds of millions of dollars worth of value in the US economy.

The idea of pilotless aircraft transporting people and goods around America’s cities “sounds cool,” Roper said, “But it’s going to be a tough challenge to get them certified for safe use.”

However, especially on the battlefield, the Air Force has “different risk tolerances because of warfighter need” and could provide a fast track for companies like Uber trying to test and prototype revolutionary autonomous transport technologies, he said.

“It’s much easier in our world: We have our own safety process (for) doing logistics on the battlefield,” Roper said. “Every flight hour that we’re flying in the Air Force is worth millions, if not billions, to those companies that are going to take over this domestic urban mobility boom that’s predicted.”

“It’s a wonderful way to think about using the defense market as a partnership opportunity to expand the industry base,” he concluded.

Roper noted that defense officials didn’t usually think of DOD in that way. “We think of ourselves as being a funder … not necessarily as being a market. But we are, we’re actually quite a big market. The Air Force is a $160 billion a year (market),” he said.

Roper said the Air Force is already using its buying power to boost two industrial sectors: space launch and satellite communications.

“The launch program is investing with (commercial) launch providers, not to make them into defense companies only, but to make them where they’re capable of servicing a defense launch or a commercial launch. Actually creating a new US industry so that we can be dominant in space … and bequeath (to future generations of Americans) an industry base that isn’t just creating warfighting capability … but providing a competitive economic advantage to the US,” he said.

Similarly, the service is developing multiple prototypes of new satellites, “not because they think every company’s going to deliver a final satellite, but so (those companies) can take the next step in their technology evolution, so that the next time we have to build a satcom satellite in the future, there are more companies that can,” he said.

He called the acquisition officials working on those programs “heroes.”

“That’s not the normal way people are trained, to think about the state of satcom, not just for their program, but years and even decades into the future,” he said.