‘Surprising Capabilities’ Guru Tapped to Lead Air Force Acquisition
The Pentagon’s buyer-in-chief, who aims to improve overall military acquisition by mimicking its non-traditional weapons shops, is about to get some major help. That’s because the president today nominated Will Roper, the founding director of the secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, to become the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.
Created in 2012, SCO helps the services modify existing arms and gear to produce “surprising new capabilities,” as then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter put it. Its best-known success stories are swarming Perdix micro-drones and an altered SM-6 missile that could sink ships.
Roper’s office — or perhaps, Roper himself — drew the eye of Ellen Lord, Trump’s first defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. Last month, Lord brought him along to a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on acquisition reform, and pointed him out as she answered senators’ questions about her plans to speed up military purchasing.
“We’re looking at what rapid capabilities offices have done, and frankly, as we organize AT&L into [two departments], what we’re doing is basically trying to scale the behaviors, the processes, or the lack thereof, that we’ve seen in these different groups,” Lord told the committee.
Roper’s nomination is a sign that the administration is serious about pushing that kind of innovative thinking into the services’ standard acquisition processes, said Todd Harrison, who directs defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“He's got a good reputation for being a can-do guy who can figure out how to work through the acquisition system to get things done in a more unconventional way,” Harrison said. “So I suspect that part of their decision to tap him for the Air Force job was to disrupt some Air Force acquisition. And space in particular would be a prime area that needs some disruption, that needs some new ways of thinking.”
But his nomination also raises questions about the future of Roper’s soon-to-be-former office. If Lord succeeds in getting the services to generally adopt practices developed by SCO, DIUx, the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, and the like, it could reduce the need for these kinds of niche shops.
DIUx has built enough of a support base in the Pentagon — if not necessarily in Congress — that it secured a mid-year funding boost last summer. But SCO, another brainchild of Carter’s, is in a particularly tenuous situation. Current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis spent his decades on active-duty largely as an operator, not a tech maven.
“It was already a little uncertain how SCO would continue, because that was really a pet project of Ash Carter — it reported directly to him,” Harrison said. “And now with the reorganization it was going to be put down under Research & Engineering,” one of the two departments into which AT&L is going to be split.
The uncertainty is increased by the way SCO is funded: mostly by project, with just a small base budget.
“A lot of people ask me: ‘How do I decide what I’m going to fund?’ I don’t,” Roper said in 2016 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I have a $60-million-a-year flatline budget. That’s what we run the office with, that’s what we do analysis with, that’s what we do low-level testing with. The other $840 million are all concepts — they’re proposals, they’re pitches to the department in the budget cycle that have been individually funded.”
It’s meant to foster something like the hyper-competitive, only-the-best survive environment of Silicon Valley startups jockeying for venture capital funding. And Roper says it has created that sense of urgency. But it also means it doesn’t have the stability other offices do.
“It’s not going to make SCO go away if I don’t do any work this year, if I die today,” Roper said back in 2016. “But in the out years, if I’m not putting new concepts in, then eventually we evaporate and go away.”
And without the leadership of SCO’s founding director championing its projects directly to a sympathetic defense secretary, the job of securing funding year after year could get more difficult.
“That's going to be a real uphill fight for them to maintain funding at a robust level in future years,” Harrison said. “The default with SCO is if you don't do anything, if you don't have someone successfully fighting for budget share, it will go away within three or four years.”