Air Force acquisition chief wants to reshape defense industrial base

Will Roper, the Air Force's acquisition chief, said the goal is to pivot away from the defense prime model and create a new industrial base that more easily allows tech companies to work with DOD and the commercial sector.

U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft awaits an engine test prior to Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance operations at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, July 23, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael Mason)
 

The Air Force's increasing interest in startups isn't just to get a taste of innovation but completely change the defense industrial base.

"We're not going to win against China long term if they're got a nationalized industrial base. They have access to that entire talent pool, they've got access to every company within their borders. And we are only working with a small subset," Will Roper, the Air Force's acquisition chief said of defense prime companies during a virtual Air Force Association Mitchell Institute event June 9.

"That subset continues to collapse every year under the pressure of programs that are too few and far between to sustain diversity and continual competition. So we have to have a new model that encourages companies to come in and work with [the] military but not necessarily put them on a path to become a defense prime."

Roper said the goal is to pivot away from the defense prime model (while still working with those companies) and create a new industrial base that more easily allows tech companies to simultaneously work with the Defense Department and the commercial sector.

The Air Force's Ventures team, launched earlier this year with a tentative $1 billion in contract awards for 550 small businesses, oversees all of the branch's small business initiatives, hopes to codify the process this year.

The Air Force began hosting pitch events in 2019, to stimulate its work with small businesses and speed contract awards for capabilities that could readily transition to the warfighter, and attract venture capital investment. Roper announced the creation of the AFVentures team in March as a joint effort with the service's acquisition team, AFWERX, and the small business innovation research and small business technology transfer program.

In the last year, Roper said the Air and Space Force has added 1,000 new companies to its industrial base over the past 18 months. Those companies are still focused on research and development but the acquisition chief wants to make working with the Air Force simple and keep up that pace, adding another 1,000 companies each year with smaller investments in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Roper also said he hopes to fund "medium bets" of about $1.5 million in contract awards for about 350 startups each year.

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