Supersonic Contracting: Will Roper believes contracting officers must restore purchasing speed to remain competitive with China and Russia

By Anne Laurent

Dr. Will Roper with the A-12 OxcartShortly before leaving office on Jan. 20, 2021, then-Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper went to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Virginia and climbed onto the concrete wall beneath a black, titanium A-12 Oxcart supersonic spy plane displayed in front of the main building. He posed there for a photograph in front of the eighth of 15 Oxcarts ever produced.

The resulting picture is rich with meaning.

Roper stands grinning in a proud yet geeky pose, perhaps a little embarrassed at his own boyish enthusiasm. His jacket is askew, his empty hands hang at his sides, he sports a sheepish grin. Roper, a brilliant, innovative thinker, physicist, and military futurist, gushes over the wild and heady days of pioneering aircraft design in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, when the Oxcart and its better-known sister, the SR-71 Blackbird, were built and flown.

The A-12, SR-71, and U-2 intelligence-gathering jets were remarkable achievements. The Oxcart, the fastest and highest flying, cruised at a blistering MACH 3.3, more than three times the speed of sound, and reached 90,000 feet in altitude. 

The planes were designed to fly so high that Soviet planes and antiaircraft guns could not stop them from filming a country that U.S. spies could not yet penetrate. But the Oxcart only flew a few missions, most over North Vietnam and North Korea, before it was mothballed by the advent of satellite intelligence collection. 

“I love that period of aviation and I particularly love that plane,” Roper says in a video. “The fact that it still holds so many records for high-speed flight for an airplane that is now many decades old is really a sad statement. What happened to high-speed aviation?”

A New Generation of Speed

Roper’s A-12 photo just might hold the answer to that question. It appears blazoned across an August 2021 press release announcing that he had joined the board of Hermeus, a venture-backed company set on trans-forming transportation by building Mach-5 passenger planes to zip passengers from New York to London in 90 minutes. 

“You probably don’t have to ask me why I joined the Hermeus board,” Roper says in the accompanying video. “You get to build a supersonic airplane! Who’s gonna say ‘no’ to that?”

Widening the focus reveals another layer of meaning in the A-12 photo -- Hermeus is the beneficiary of a $60 million contract through a paradigm-busting contracting effort Roper kicked off in 2020 with $550 million in awards to 21 companies in the AFWERX Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI). 

Beginning as a joint project of Air Force acquisition; the service’s innovation hub, AFWERX; and its Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Program; STRATFI is intended to make big investments – four-year fixed-price contracts – in startups.

To supersize amounts the Air Force can ante up, STRATFI musters private investment. In part, the program is designed to help startups over the “valley of death” between relatively small contracts that SBIR/STTR and other innovation prototype deals provide and investments big enough to fund working technology the Air Force can develop and adopt. 

After successfully testing its Mach-5 engine, Hermeus won a $1.5 million Direct-to-Phase II SBIR contract in 2020 with the Air Force Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate and Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to build out its Mach-5 engine prototype. 

The $60 million STRATFI investment will launch development through flight testing of the Quarterhorse, which will become the fastest reusable plane in the world.

Roper sees STRATFI as something even bigger: the model of a national strategy for seeding the U.S. market to build new industries in the most promising, farthest-out areas of innovation – AI, quantum, biologically inspired systems, and digitization. A model, in other words, for beating Russia, and even more, China, to world leadership in technology, economy, and power.

And all of it – all the innovation, industrial revolutions, and victory – depends on contracting professionals.

Contracting Makes It Happen

Roper and Captain Ashley Feldman“The most important extension of any government or national strategy will be through contracting professionals. Period,” he says. This is contracting’s moment, Roper believes, and its professionals are primed. “They have been ready for this for decades. They no longer want to be maligned as the impediments to innovation, knowing that they bear the risk for what they sign their name to. I think they’ve been waiting to be viewed as innovators, as mavericks, as ninjas. 

“It’s contracts that turn the paper and words generated by the government into things and outcomes. And having new thinking in contracting could not be more important at this time because ultimately, whatever is in the contract is what will happen.”

The imperative is not so much in knowing today’s “what,” according to Roper, but in being able to pivot fast and effectively to “what’s next.” 

“No one can predict today’s future. There are too many technologies that can be leveraged, too many world events that can turn things on a dime just like we’ve seen COVID do. And likely, as Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine will do. So, is the mechanism by which the government retains industry able to turn on a dime as well?”

The Power to Pivot

Turning on a dime means contracting professionals must be armed and supported for speed and agility, “the ability to deal with the unknown in some graceful or efficient manner,” in Roper’s words. “Government has very little agility. But if it is ever to be agile with industry, then the contracting mechanism must reflect that.” 

Speed and agility will require contracting professionals to exercise more discretion than they currently do so they can enable government to fully embrace its role as first adopter of new technology and to stimulate industrial revolutions, he explains. 

“When contracting officials provide a mechanism for agility or speed, which perhaps doesn’t button everything up to a degree where a program can run for five years – as if we can predict what the needs of the government will be in five years – it has to be applauded and rewarded.”

Government must serve as first adopter of new practices, processes, technologies, Roper continues, because it can afford them earlier and its mission often makes risking those investments necessary. Government can buy enough at an early stage to make a difference to innovative companies, without requiring them to be capable of immediate global production. 

“If we are able to bring the way we do business in the government into greater symbiosis with our private sector, then we would see the two things accelerate each other,” he says. “The .gov market de-risking the .com market.”

Reaching this symbiosis is a job for all agencies and all contracting professionals, Roper emphasizes, not just the Defense Department and military services. To illustrate, he sketches out an impromptu thought experiment for how, say, a Transportation Security Administration contracting officer might bring innovation and a bit of daring to buying the metal tables where TSA security screeners examine the contents of fliers’ bags.

“If that was my charge, I would be looking at ‘Are we buying them for the entire country or for a handful of airports? Does it make sense for us to do a mass purchase, or does it make sense for us to do indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity because we’re not certain of our future needs? Will the needs of our tables change? Or do we expect that the security processes are going to modify, meaning I’ll be looking for manufacturers who can efficiently change their designs?’

“Then I’m probably looking at more 21st-century manufacturing – more agile, digital, advanced manufacturing approaches – as opposed to mass production. Now I’m into digital acquisition. So why would I contract with a digitally transformed company using paper? And next time, why wouldn’t I just do everything with them digitally? Why wouldn’t the Contract Data Requirement List (CDRL) be digital? Why would I have a person sign off on anything? If it’s just checking the boxes, I could let the quality upon delivery be the method of enforcing the contract.

“Even in simple examples, you can get outside the box quickly, if you dare.”

Bringing out contracting’s agile side means identifying, empowering, and protecting outliers, says Roper: “If you’re in TSA and you’re a somewhat senior leader, you have to find a maverick in your contracting workforce. They need to be given a project that is not taking on the whole organization. Something that is significant enough to be a different model, but not too big.” 

Roper gave his Air Force contracting ninjas such a project: Create a different model of contracting with venture-capital-backed companies as opposed to defense primes.

“We needed to be able to do contracts that were simple, understandable, in English, and where we could have cash flow to companies literally 15 minutes after the source selection. That is even faster than Silicon Valley works. And we did that. Our contracting workforce rose to that occasion. They went through thousands of venture-backed company submissions and were able to do those contracts in 15 minutes.” 

You might recognize in that description the famous Air Force Pitch Days, contracting sprints that produced 400 contracts in a weekend for companies with winning pitches and paying them on the spot with purchase cards. 

“All of that was to show what contracting officers can do if motivated and given the top cover to work outside of the box but still within the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR),” says Roper. “My experience working with teams on programs big and small is that people inherently want to show their prowess and tradecraft and are so often put in a culture that disincentivizes that. If you simply give people the ability to show what they can do, they do it.” So much so, he notes, that in 2019, the pitch day team was given the coveted David Packard award, DoD’s highest acquisition accolade.

One pitch day spawned dozens per year, creating a domino effect as more and more contracting officers asked, “Why can’t we do other things this way?” From enticing Silicon Valley startups, pitch days spread to buying aircraft parts. 

“They just became a tool that contract contracting officers could use to do source selections that were based more on oral presentation than on proposals,” Roper says. “Venture-backed companies that don’t know much about Defense don’t know how to write a defense proposal. But they sure do know how to go pitch their company and what their team is capable of doing. That’s how they raise capital.”

Getting government and its contracting offices to dole out capital like venture investors is key to Roper’s vision.

Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle concept“The thing I’m most concerned about is that we brought in 2,300 companies in from the private sector – Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin – not all startups; some of them quite large. The question is, the companies that have come in through these mostly developmental contracts or agreements, do they transition to recurring revenue? If they don’t, then Silicon Valley and other investors will say the federal government is a cul de sac: You can get some non-dilutive capital for development, but there will not be recurring revenue on the other side. And if that happens, the next generation of startups is going to look at the Air Force and other government organizations and say, ‘Not a good investor.’”

Agility Prime

So how did Roper prime the investment pump and goose contracting teams and program offices to take greater risks?

Flying cars, of course. 

More precisely, electronic vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles. They take off vertically like a helicopter and then transition into normal flight like an airplane. At the time, they were viewed as little more than “Jetsons” cars; old-time futuristic family transport featured in the 1962 cartoon show. No one in the Air Force was particularly interested. Except Roper.

I wrote in Wired about them, and I said, these are really new things in aviation,” he recalls. “The Air Force ought to be involved because they fly, and we should be involved in anything new that flies.”

It was a tough sell. No obvious use on the battlefield. No requirement. So, Roper brandished a disturbing analogy: DJI, the Chinese drone maker that captured and dominated the global market for small commercial drones and camera technology while the United States seemingly slept. By 2018, DOD banned use of hobbyist-size commercial drones, having discovered DJI’s sent data back to their home country, according to Ellen Lord, then the head of DoD acquisition. In response, DoD created the Trusted Capital Marketplace, a program matching U.S. investors with U.S. startups to prevent them from taking foreign – read Chinese – investment. The market-place’s first project: building a small-drone industry in the United States.

Roper mobilized his innovation hub, AFWERX, to take on eVTOL in a new program dubbed Agility Prime. He used it to inspire and challenge contracting mavericks. eVTOL was so different from traditional airplanes that companies couldn’t easily get Federal Aviation Administration flight certification. Roper saw that the Air Force could get them up and flying faster, and thereby stir interest among investors. 

“Our contracting professionals started thinking like investors and put together a contracting strategy that they believed would make private investors respond. And it did,” Roper boasts. “The first companies that ever had a flight certification for a vertical takeoff and landing, electrically propelled aircraft happened in the Air Force. The first flight revenue ever generated in the market happened in the Air Force, and billions of dollars of private capital flowed into those companies. Many of them went public with many more likely to go public. And now the U.S. is leading that industry.”

Not that there weren’t naysayers.

A group of contracting officers argued that the Air Force needed to own the companies’ intellectual property (IP) and have them modify their commercial designs especially for military use. Roper was thrilled to see a louder maverick group win the day, saying, “If we ask companies to modify these systems, they’re not going to come work with us because they’re trying to commercialize, not militarize. We have to find a valid military use case for what they are building, not what they could build.” His pathbreakers understood that trying to own startups’ IP and failing to offer a path to recurring revenue were deal-breakers. 

“We’re actually contracting for opportunity in the industrial base,” Roper explained to his contracting team. “We’re doing it with the right incentives to make billions of dollars of capital flow for a little bit of triggering dollars and certification in the government.”

To Roper’s delight, the team decided that the FAR allowed the approach: “We’re the government; we decide what we value, their thinking went. We value having access to this market. We value bringing in private investment. We are allowed to buy opportunity and options, even though that is not historically how we’ve operated.”

To cement an Air Force bridge across the valley of death, Roper also required purchasers and operators to bleed a little. “If we were going to invest and they didn’t want to put skin in the game in terms of capital, then we knew that there wasn’t a product-market fit and the likelihood of that company actually getting a contract was low.” All big Air Force investments -- for example, Hermeus’ $60 million STRATFI -- require internal customers like the Presidential Airlift Directorate and AFRL to put real program dollars on the table before they can reap matching funds from government and private investors. That paves the way for Roper’s all-important recurring revenue.

Good Air Force bets opened the way for commercial ones. Now, Amazon, FedEx and UPS are investing in the eVTOL market as a way to reach remote areas faster. The eVTOL industry is revolutionary and the United States now leads it, Roper proclaims. The idea of logistics without infrastructure, without landing fields, with-out noise, has the Air Force and the Army engaged as well, he adds.

Roper anticipates eVTOL will have huge impacts in rural locations and the infrastructure-poor developing world. “Much of the developed world is connected logistically via freight airplanes and delivery trucks. In fact, most people can get nearly anything delivered in 48 hours,” Roper notes. “But in rural area far from airports and the developing world where roads are poor, deliveries take much longer. eVTOL is poised to change this by connecting locations absent infrastructure.” 

“It’s a world-shrinking industry the U.S. needs to lead,” Roper says.

Long-Term Urgency

Seeding industrial revolutions on the bleeding-edge. Seizing back the technological lead now in danger of slip-ping away. These are whole-government, whole-workforce, whole-country duties in Roper’s mind.

“The world is once again challenged by a notion that might is right. And I ask everyone, ‘What are they doing to ensure that it isn’t?,’” Roper says. Americans should have a sense of long-term urgency, he adds, like chess players feeling their advantage flowing away though the game won’t end for many moves. 

“If we felt that as a nation, every person, every function would wake up thinking about what they can do to ensure that their children get the benefit of what has been bequeathed to us from generations before.”

“China wants us to get up each day and not think about them,” Roper warns. “Don’t worry about it today. Just wake up, enjoy another day. And you’ll find in the future, that your children or your children’s children had to learn Mandarin in school and the companies they want to work for are Chinese international companies because China kept their engine focused on creating the next industrial revolution.”

Fired up like an A-12, Roper is stoked to rev up contracting innovation, America’s engine of revolution. CM

Anne Laurent is Editor in Chief of NCMA’s monthly magazine, Contract Management, and director of professional practice and innovation. She has served as director for strategic initiatives at ASI Government, and director of defense and business intelligence analysis at Bloomberg Government. She was executive editor of Government Executive magazine, directed CGI Federal’s Initiative for Collaborative Government, and was senior editor of Federal Times newspaper. She is a National Academy of Public Administration fellow.