WASHINGTON — Will Roper has been tapped for the Air Force’s top technology spot, putting the future of the Pentagon’s semi-secretive Strategic Capabilities Office into question.
President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate SCO Director Roper to assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition on Wednesday. Trump also announced an intent to nominate Kevin Fahey, vice president of combat vehicles and armaments at Cypress International, as an assistant secretary of defense for acquisition.
Roper has led the SCO since it was stood up by then deputy secretary of defense Ash Carter. Although they share some DNA, the SCO’s mission is different from that of the Pentagon’s DARPA technology office. Whereas the latter is focused on finding and prototyping the game-changing technologies for the future fight, the SCO is trying to understand current, existing needs and address them in new ways.
The office has had successes, but its future has been clouded even before today’s nomination.
Part of the SCO’s success has come because it reported directly to the secretary of defense, able to circumvent the notorious Pentagon bureaucracy. But under a reorganization plan for the Pentagon’s acquisition system, the office would instead report to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for prototyping and experimentation, four levels down from the SecDef.
Sources say Roper has been fighting to keep SCO reporting directly to the secretary of defense, unsuccessfully so far. Those same sources say Roper’s appointment to the office is scheduled to expire in the spring. It is unclear who will take over SCO in the future.
Asked about his future by Defense News in December, Roper declined to comment through a spokesperson. On Wednesday, Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza said the building has “nothing to announce” at the moment as to the future leadership of SCO.
The Air Force acquisition job has been empty since Bill LaPlante left in last 2015. Hints of where Roper may focus his attention can be seen in his previous comments, where he has been a proponent for the Air Force to rely more on swarming systems in the future.
Perhaps the most attention-getting program from the office has been the Perdix system, a series of small drones designed with off-the-shelf technology. Perdix can be launched from the flare dispensers on an F-16 or F/A-18, and then can automatically link up and form a self-driving swarm of small ISR devices. A test in 2016 successfully showed that the system could link 103 of the drones together.
Notably, Roper expressed concern that the Air Force may not be as willing to use unmanned technologies in such ways as the other services, in part because they have no faced the same kind of fundamental challenges the other services have.
“The worst thing is to be in a position where the need to change is, yes, the most important thing, but it never the most important thing today,” Roper said in March. “We have to keep urgency in the need to change, because when we’re goanna need those changes, [when] the country says I now have a need for a next generation Air Force, it’s too late.”
Another Air Force program overseen by the SCO is the design of a so-called “arsenal plane,” which would take an older airframe and load it with a large amount of precision-guided munitions. During combat, fifth-generation fighters would penetrate the enemy’s airspace and provide targeting information to the arsenal plane, which could then take out adversaries from standoff distances.
Fahey, if confirmed, would serve as assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, a job that will slide under the new undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment office.
There he would oversee four sub-offices, namely the DASD for industrial base; the DASD for policy planning, resources and performance; the DASD for warfare system support; and the DASD for defense procurement. This group will be in charge of setting policy, handling oversight and metrics, and running training for the acquisition staff, which is why the Defense Acquisition University will report here.
Fahey previously served as executive director of Systems Engineering, integration directorate in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology, and as program executive officer for combat support and combat service support at Program Executive Officer Ground Combat Systems in Warren, Michigan
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.