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William Roper: Pentagon Needs to Look Toward Repurposing Technology

The USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53) launches a Standard Missile 6 (SM-6) during a live fire test of the ship’s Aegis weapon system. OSD and the Navy modify the SM-6 to hit surface targets. U.S. Navy photo

How the Navy turned their Standard Missile 6 into an anti-surface weapon should be a role model for any service and follow the Pentagon to bring new ways of thinking into the way they fight and bring new life to industrial bases, the said former head of Air Force Acquisition Thursday.

The country must “build a war-winning industrial base for the future” to keep pace with a competitive China, said William Roper, who headed the Pentagon’s strategic capabilities office before joining the Air Force.

While in the skills office, he saw the Navy break out with the “do the same thing over and over” mindset when it came to future battles.

Speaking at an online Heritage Foundation event Thursday, Roper said the Navy’s experiments with drones delivering cargo between a Coast Guard cutter and a warship are important, although they have not been successful anywhere. He commended former Chiefs of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Adm. Jonathan Greenert for their efforts to repurpose existing technologies, such as missile customization and unmanned ships, to pave the way for future breakthrough innovations.

Sgt.1st Class Daniel Guenther (right), U.S. Army Research Laboratory, explains Dr. William Roper (left), director of the DOD Strategic Capabilities Office, demonstrates the Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle concept with a small model at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, Jan. 10, 2017.

Roper said they took a “let’s fight differently” approach to future warfare. This approach also meant looking at commercially used technologies and reusing them for use in the military, as well as reevaluating existing programs such as the standard missile.

The first step in getting to “leap technologies” like artificial intelligence and machine learning is to innovate with what the military already has, he said.

“I doubt the Navy now has the need to get drone supplies onto ships,” but it has the potential to revolutionize logistics in distributed operations, Roper added. Since leaving office, he has been running a medical supply company for drone logistics.

“We don’t have autonomous things” in the Ministry of Defense; it now has “remote-controlled things” that remained tightly controlled.

The Navy and the other services must see themselves as “less procurer, more than catalyst” in order to maintain a technological advantage. The Pentagon wants to co-invest to take advantage of the benefits in areas such as autonomy that can come from the commercial sector.

“This is not model-based engineering,” said Roper. He said the nation is in the fourth revolution of the industrial age – digitally and pioneering the auto industry – adding that the Pentagon can “sow the next industrial revolution” with some targeted areas of investment such as life science technologies.

In order to be successful with these projects in the Department of Defense and also to show the commercial sector how to use these military innovations, a project needs tests and regulatory certifications, he said. Certification is key to getting out of the research and development phase languishing in potential programs.

Following “old-fashioned” acquisition and procurement practices will further reduce the number of companies in the defense industry, and this will affect the ability of the American military to prevail in a future conflict, Roper said.