WASHINGTON — During his time as the U.S. Air Force’s acquisition executive, Will Roper had no shortage of disruptive and boundary-pushing projects, whether it was conceptualizing a “Digital Century Series” of rapidly produced fighters or developing an autonomous drone wingman known as “Skyborg.”
Now in civilian life, Roper will be sharing his big ideas on digital engineering, cloud computing, agile software and artificial intelligence with one of the U.S Air Force’s closest partners: the British Royal Air Force.
Roper, who left U.S. government service in January, became an adviser to the RAF this summer, he told Defense News in an exclusive interview.
“[Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston] asked to meet with me in Washington and said: ‘We want to digitally transform the whole service, and we need help to do it,’ ” Roper said. “They want to chase [a] digital engineering approach for future fighters; they want to do the same cloud approach that we did with doing containerized development [for software].”
As an honorary member of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force’s No. 601 Squadron — a nonflying unit reestablished in 2019 and comprised of thought leaders from commercial industry — Roper will provide input on how the RAF can best incorporate technologies like digital engineering and agile software development that he believes could flip the paradigm of aircraft manufacturing.
However, it will be up to RAF leaders to determine how much of Roper’s advice to incorporate into existing programs.
“[Roper] understands the underpinning culture that’s required in an organization, and our rapid capabilities office in the Royal Air Force is very fortunate to be able to benefit from that support,” Wigston said in an interview, adding that there are “a number of areas around digital engineering and digital modeling” on which Roper will work.
The starting line
Roper has not been given direction to provide advice on any specific weapons development program, Wigston said. But the two agreed that the Future Combat Air System program is a natural place from which to levy Roper’s expertise on digital engineering.
Through the FCAS program, the Royal Air Force hopes to develop a family of systems that includes the sixth-generation Tempest fighter, the uncrewed Mosquito fighter that will act as a “loyal wingman” to Tempest, and swarming drones.
The program bears similarities to the U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance system — the service’s effort to build a sixth-gen family of combat aircraft.
Key to both programs is digital engineering, the practice of developing a highly accurate “digital twin” of a system whose production, maintenance and upgrades can be virtually modeled in extreme detail.
However, there are signs that the NGAD program may be further along in development. Last year, Roper disclosed that at least one full-scale NGAD demonstrator had flown, a feat he attributed to the use of digital engineering processes. U.S. Air Force leaders have hinted that the program is progressing rapidly and could be available around 2030.
Meanwhile, the RAF in July awarded a $347 million contract for the “concept and assessment phase” for Tempest . The aircraft is set to go into service in the mid-2030s, but it’s unclear when its first flight will take place.
“Everyone is afraid they’re behind on digital engineering and this fourth industrial revolution that everyone believes is coming,” Roper said. “You’re not behind, you’re with everyone else at the starting line. But the starting pistol has fired and you’ve got to run because this is going to be as the hype portends.”
If tasked to evaluate how FCAS could better use digital engineering and modeling processes, Roper said he would begin by looking at the underlying infrastructure to virtually build, test and redesign a product at high levels of speed and accuracy.
“That’s the beginning point — do we have the right [digital engineering] tools in place, the cloud in place so you can build digital entities?” he said. “The next thing to help on is training because if no one can use the tools, they are irrelevant.”
One thing that excites Roper about working with the Royal Air Force is its smaller size, which could make for a more agile organization capable of rolling out changes more quickly.
“Though they’re not the biggest air force, their size might allow them to act more like a startup with transformation, be able to do things faster [with] tighter turns on experimentation,” Roper said.
Size also presents a financial advantage for the RAF as it seeks to incorporate digital engineering, when compared to larger nations like the United States and China that can benefit from mass production.
“Digital transformation, although it provides amazing magic if done correctly, does not provide the same economies of scale as traditional acquisition for the last industrial revolution,” Roper said. “That is great news for countries that are smaller in terms of their size and industrial base because they can play on a more level playing field.”
One of Roper’s first tasks will be to provide input to the RAF on how to build a cloud environment and coding infrastructure for agile software development — another technology he championed due to its ability to allow developers to quickly code, test and release new software packages created with user involvement.
It took about two years for the U.S. Air Force to create those tools, but it’s possible the RAF could do it more quickly by mimicking American work on software development cells like Kessel Run or the software development environments of Cloud One and Platform One, Roper said.
“You can simply copy that. You can even potentially partner with the Air Force on those infrastructure platforms,” he said. “There are many opportunities to get out of the gate faster than we did in the U.S. Air Force and potentially collaborate to go even faster to the goal line. Because the tools are not what you ultimately want to focus on — you want to get to the coding for the mission.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.