The Air Force acquisition chief says he keeps politics out of his work at the Pentagon — and that the U.S. will lose against China without agility.
Will Roper, who leads U.S. Air Force acquisition efforts, expects to have more time to spend with his newborn daughter, starting Jan. 20. But he said Thursday he’d be willing to stay on into the Biden administration.
Roper — who joined the Pentagon during the Obama administration as the head of the Strategic Capabilities Office, then became a Trump administration political appointee — argued he brings a unique technical expertise to a traditionally bureaucratic position, one that is necessary as the U.S. competes against China. He also said he keeps his personal political views to himself.
“I want to serve — I want to be part of the China fight,” Roper said during an hour-long Thursday morning Zoom call with reporters. “In terms of the best way to do that and what the incoming administration will decide, that is their decision. Whatever they decide, they'll have my full support on it.”
For months, people close to the Biden campaign and transition team have mentioned Roper and his Navy counterpart James “Hondo” Geurts as apolitical leaders who might be worth keeping around.
“I'm not a political person; I don't get involved in politics,” Roper said. I certainly have personal views on them — very strong ones — but the reason I come to work every day is to bring the technical knowledge that I have, and the ability to hopefully lead change and innovation in government, as well as a focus on China.”
Earlier this week in a LinkedIn post, Roper shared a letter he sent to all Air Force and Space Force acquisition professionals condemning the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection in which Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol disrupting the certification of November’s presidential election.
“The violence, hate speech, misinformation, and sedition of last week are reprehensible hallmarks of authoritarianism, not our democratic republic,” he wrote. “They have no place in America or its military, not protections under our Constitution.”
During his Thursday call, Roper said: “I'm just not a person that gets into politics. I decided a long time ago that I wanted to try to help the military, be able to compete against China. And there have been some trying times, for sure, some personal trying times, for me, determining whether I believe that professional calling outweighs my personal convictions on matters, especially as I've served in this job.”
Roper said agreed to be considered for his current Trump administration post — assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics — after then-Air Force Chief of Staff Dave Goldfein asked him “to come try to change the Air Force.”
Throughout his tenure, Roper has worked to change the way the Air Force buys weapons. He pushed to move service data and operations into the cloud, a concept that would allow it to more quickly update its networks and software applications. More recently, he has pushed companies to design and build weapons digitally, something that is expected to dramatically shorten the timeline from getting equipment to the battlefield quicker.
“Whoever takes the reins and the baton from me, I hope they'll have a technical background to be able to see the potential of the technologies I view as so promising to see them through a technical lens, as well as a programmatic one,” he said.
Roper argued that his unique technical background positions him well for helping the Pentagon compete against China.
“The China fight is not going anywhere. It was there when I started in the Obama administration, it is here as I work in the Department of the Air Force, and it will be here in the future,” he said. “I fear them and I don't think that fear is properly shared yet in the Pentagon.
“I don't think there is true cognizance and realization that we can lose — and that on paper, we're likely to lose,” he continued. “The scale factors are against us in terms of GDP and population and STEM talent, every single factor is against. And the only way to win against the Goliath of that scale, is to have greater agility.”
Roper acknowledged that his next job, in government or outside of government, will focus on keeping the U.S. a step ahead of China.
“China is going to be here for the long term, past any single administration, they have a plan to knock us off the top,” he said. “That is why I came into defense, that is why I work so hard at this. And no matter what I do in the future, that is what I want to be a part of.”