The service needs “a new industrial base model that’s not a defense industrial base model,” said Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. “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.”
Such an approach would help the United States counter adversaries such as China, which has a larger industrial base, Roper said during a webinar hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. The 2018 National Defense Strategy listed China as a great power competitor.
“Our defense primes are going to continue to be heavy movers and shakers for us, but we’re not going to win against China long term” without bringing in additional industry players, he said. “If they’ve got a nationalized industrial base, they have access to their entire talent pool. They have access to every company that’s within their border. And we are only working with a small subset” of industry.
To encourage these changes, the service has been taking steps such as setting up AFVentures.The effort is a collaboration between the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Program and AFWERX to invest in companies that may have technology useful to the military. Some of the funding is coming from private investors.
Over the last year and a half, the service has added over 1,000 companies to its industrial roster, Roper said. Many of these firms are working on research-and-development prototypes, which may lead to contracts for steady work later down the road, he noted.
Through AFWERX, the Air Force has been giving out awards and making different levels of “bets” on technology, with small bets totaling between $50,000 to $75,000; medium bets worth between $1 million to $3 million; and big bets from $5 million to $50 million, according to the service.
“It begins with getting companies through that front door so that they can move on to steady-state contracts and programs of record supporting the warfighters,” Roper said.
Until recently the push to move away from the standard defense industrial base model through AFWERX has only been experimental, he noted. The service must make it the standard practice for acquiring new weapons, he said.
“This is the year that we have to make it codified, steady-state across the Air and Space Force,” he said. “It’s imperative. It’s the bread and butter of winning the competition long term.”