USAF Undersecretary: Important that OKC is a champion for aerospace
With more than 230 aerospace firms and a workforce of nearly 40,000 employees in the region, aerospace plays a key role in the Greater Oklahoma City economy. On Dec. 7, an audience of about 350 local officials and business leaders gathered at the Sheraton Midwest City Hotel at the Reed Conference Center for the State of the Aerospace Defense Industry event. Hosted annually by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, the event highlights opportunities and challenges in the aerospace defense industry.
In the past, speakers have included Tinker AFB commanders, Sen. Jim Inhofe and executives from private aerospace companies, such as Boeing.
This year, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Dr. William Roper was the keynote speaker, discussing Air Force innovation initiatives and the implications for Tinker Air Force Base and Oklahoma City.
“I'm excited anytime I get to talk to people who are interested in today's Air Force and its future and you can see both of that here in the Oklahoma City area,” Roper said. “Tinker, as you know is what's keeping our Air Force ready to go fly, fight and win.”
Roper said the Air Force is unique, in that it has an instantaneous imperative.
“It has to be able to go this hour, it has to be able to go today. It doesn't get to amass and station and then forward deploy. We have to move. And so, if you spin a globe today and close your eyes and stick a pin in it, we can put an airplane there. We can sustain it there and that is thanks to a lot of the people that are in this room,” he said. “We have to have a strategy and a vision for this. The Pentagon is not good at this, my friends. The Pentagon is, in many ways a coffin of innovation. The ratio of people who can say no to yes is higher than any other place I've worked.”
Roper discussed how the aerospace industry has shifted while the Air Force was focused on counter terrorism. This disconnect could keep the U.S. from being competitive with rising world powers the way it was during the Cold War.
“So, if you're in the Pentagon right now, you've got something that's hit your desk called the National Defense Strategy,” Roper said. “It sends a clear, clarion call to the work force that we need to shake ourselves up, quit worrying as much about counter terrorism. It's important, but if we keep focusing on that we are not going to be competing against rising powers that have the ability to match us technology to technology.”
Former cold war foes, countries like China and Russia, are forcing that competition, he said. And while some of the lessons learned during that era still apply, “we're gonna have to make them make sense for today, and today is not the same. So we're back in an era of competition and that means we are thinking about a high-tech Air Force.”
The industry pivot that happened from mechanical to electronic has now pivoted to digital, according to Roper.
“That is where most innovation is occurring. We are still focused on a future Air Force mainly in the electronic sphere. We are going to have to imagine and build a completely different Air Force using the increasingly commercial industry base we have. The Air Force has a good starting foundation due to technology making things cheaper and faster.”
Roper said the Air Force is doing a good job of increasing its speed of acquisition, with time being the “holy grail” of acquisition when it comes to being competitive.
“You can beat your opponent with an 80 percent or 90 percent solution that you filled faster than their 100 percent solution that they're working on for on a longer time scale. Time-to-market is the most indicative factor of a competition and the Air Force has done a good job in picking up the pace.”
Roper is excited about the Air Force of the future.
“What a wonderful time to be a service that has to focus on aviation,” he said. “Look at the enthusiasm that exists in the world and in this country for drones, flying everywhere, doing missions. Technology is making them cheaper, better, faster. Look at how much networking has changed, being able to do more processing, onboard systems and share data broadly and have hundreds, thousands of things connected to each other, working as units. Think about where artificial intelligence and machine learning, that we are still not treating well enough, we're not treating as important enough, how they will impact future warfare.
I could imagine an Air Force that is pretty awesome and pretty different than the one we have today, so I'm excited to play a role in helping to start build that kind of Air Force as we sustain the one that we have today. So, it's very much like a pediatric and geriatric job in the same hospital and it's a role that I think that Oklahoma City can play a big part in.”
As far as the city and communities around Tinker AFB, Roper said it is important for them to be “champions of new aerospace,” incubating new aerospace companies to grow the industry base.
“We need to be growing cities that want the best additive manufacturing to happen there,” he said. “And this is a great place to do it because you have got the greatest living laboratory in the Air Logistics Complex that you're going to find in any city. Planes that need to be flying, engineering problems that are unique, that should motivate engineers to want to go to work, push the envelope, knowing that they're doing a mission bigger than themselves.”
Oklahoma City can also help by being part of the Air Force’s focus on the acquisition schedule, Roper said.
“There is a lot of work to go around. I am really happy to hear that Oklahoma City wants to be one of those cities where aerospace is one of the first things you think about when you think about what happens there,” Roper said.
Prior to Roper’s address, a panel of executives from three local companies – Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton and Northrop Grumman – provided overviews of their companies activities in the region and insight on what types of talent needs to be recruited or trained to keep Oklahoma City at the forefront of aviation and aerospace.
“Today's landscape is incredibly comprehensive and as we grow in the state, over 240 net new jobs over the next decade, we have a comprehensive recruiting strategy to do that,” said Madeline Mitchell, management and technology consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton. “But, we cannot do it alone. We absolutely must partner with the Chamber, the city and the state to incorporate STEM education into our schools at every level.”
Greg Smith, Northrop Grumman’s B-2 program site director, lauded some of the Chamber’s efforts to attract talent, saying that “other chambers of commerce do some of this, but I have not seen it done this well and creates such a great family of working together to bring aerospace here.”
Smith also questioned why the aerospace sector couldn’t be first in Oklahoma and asserted that there is no lack of talent here.
“There's so much goodness here, particularly with the universities.”
Boeing’s Mikeal Clayton, site director for the OKC facility, detailed how there is now the potential for someone to do enough different kinds of work that they could spend an entire career in Oklahoma City.
“Boeing Oklahoma City is the fastest-growing Boeing site in the United States over the past five years. And that's a tremendous testament to the wonderful business climate that we've created here,” he said.
Clayton also said that Boeing is leveraging that growth, since it provides benefits to attracting potential talent.
“When the company invests the kind of investment they're making in Oklahoma City, the work looks stable and the growth of work has the collateral benefit of being one of those varied portfolios within our Boeing defense business,” he said. “There was a time in Boeing Oklahoma City where a young person could come to Oklahoma City and work, but they inevitably, if they wanted to really advance, would have to leave Oklahoma City at some point in time. Now, there is the potential for that person is to do enough different kinds of work that they could spend an entire career in Oklahoma City, and that's really attractive to some folks.”
When you look at the incredible work being done by some of the biggest names in commercial aerospace, companies like Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed Martin aircraft, Northrop Grumman, General Electric aviation and AAR aircraft Services, it's apparent that the future of aerospace in our region is bright and it will be a great day to fly in Oklahoma for many years to come.