USAF Acquisition Head Calls for More Prototyping in Development

William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on assessing military service acquisition reform. Screenshot photo.

The Air Force should go back to its Cold War ability to prototype new weapons and systems as a way to avoid cost issues such as those that have plagued the development of the F-35, the civilian head of USAF acquisition said Wednesday.

“When I look back at a time when the US Air Force prototyped well, during the experimental plane heyday, when we were continually spiraling advanced aircraft to try to stay ahead of the Soviet Union, the reason that that worked so well is there was discipline to only do one new thing per prototype,” William Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary of acquisition, technology, and logistics, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on acquisition reform.

He pointed to the SR-71 Blackbird, as an example, saying most people remember that plane but “rarely do people mention the A-12, which was the plane before it that mastered Mach 3 flights.”

The Air Force knew from the A-12, he said, that it had established the Mach 3 capability, so it could then move to the next step, putting that capability in a two-seat plane.

This prototyping allowed the Air Force to test and add individual capabilities or characteristics to a plane instead of “just kicking off a large program where there are multiple difficult things to do and hoping that they’ll somehow all work out, and in the end you’ll get the system that you want.”

Roper also called for increased use of university and college research capabilities.

He said officials are “generally guilty in the department” of thinking of universities as places where basic, but not applied, research can be conducted.

However, he said, modern technologies, aided by such processes as 3D printing and artificial intelligence “really allow universities to do applied research” that can go directly into the field, and he expressed satisfaction that new contracts authority will allow officials to work more closely with colleges and universities.

He said it is necessary to retrain the Air Force’s civilian workforce but that there is much that can be gotten out of universities, even those that do not have one of the Defense Department’s university-affiliated research centers attached to them.