Will Roper speaks at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in 2019.

Will Roper speaks at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in 2019. U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. DeAndre Curtiss

Defense Business Brief: Will Roper’s new startup; Lockheed to build powerful laser; Pentagon reorganizing R&E office and more.

When Will Roper left his position as head of U.S. Air Force acquisition, creating his own startup wasn’t on his bucket list. 

“Government burns you out, so you don't think, ‘I'm going to go leave and found a company,’” Roper said in an interview last week. 

But after consulting for some companies about ways to digitally transform their businesses, it became clear to him that there was no software—or company—that tied together all the different types of modeling and simulation that’s done when designing and building something.

“The thing that pushed me over the goal line for starting the company was realizing that if a company was trying to solve this fundamental problem of plugging and playing models and simulations together … wouldn't they have found me when I was running $60 billion of purchasing potential?” Roper said.

Roper created Istari in 2022, but the company operated in secret until earlier this year. Its first investor was former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who has been a champion of commercial technology companies working with the military, and more investors followed, Roper said. 

The company’s website touts how it's “building the engineering Metaverse.”

“The team has made breakthroughs in plugging and playing models and sims that I never would have thought were possible in the Air Force,” he said. “I see the path now for making hardware act like software, for bringing agile into physical systems in their improvement.”

Like many sci-fi-named Pentagon offices created under Roper’s tenure, the company’s name comes from fiction: the Istari were wizards in the Lord of the Rings.

In the Pentagon, Roper emphasized using digital technology to design the military’s future weapons. That technology has shown promise, allowing companies like Boeing to design and build two pilot training jets in just three years. But it still has its limits, which Roper’s company is trying to mitigate.

Tying together and automating the modeling and simulation process could speed the weapons design and development process up exponentially, something much desired inside the Pentagon. The technology could also allow weapons to be iteratively improved more quickly.

And it will allow smaller companies to do things that were previously only possible for large firms with lots of engineers.

“What we've done is create a way that you can easily move things in and out of a digital thread without having to have an army of people do it,” Roper said. “That's going to open this up to companies that are not major [companies].”

Roper likens the potential of the technology he’s developing to how Formula 1 racing has used digital technology to transform racing. Data collection sensors on race cars allow them to coexist in the real world and the digital world—something that doesn’t happen in the military today.

“We don't have that in aerospace and defense, but we will,” Roper said. When we do, we need a mechanism to take the data back from the physical system and improve the underlying digital twin, and decide, does that force a change to be pushed back to the physical, and where that will be of greatest value is in operationalizing algorithms.”

It’s going to take time before this concept becomes a reality. But essentially,  the digital world overlaps with the real world when the simulations are spot on.

“When your digital and physical twin overlap, it's like beast mode or superhuman strength for you,” Roper said. “When it doesn't, it's like kryptonite.”


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It’s earnings week for RTX (Tuesday), General Dynamics (Wednesday), Boeing (Wednesday), L3Harris Technologies (Thursday), and Northrop Grumman (Thursday). 

Lockheed Martin reported its second quarter earnings last week and upped its annual revenue expectations to between $66.25 billion and $66.75 billion. “We are confident in our ability to achieve these higher expectations and return to growth sooner than previously anticipated,” CEO Jim Taiclet said on the company’s July 18 earnings conference call. Lockheed had anticipated flat sales this year.

Taiclet also seemed to turn the temperature down after comments by a top Lockheed executive about the future of the F-35’s engine were not well received by RTX’s Pratt & Whitney. 

“We're not involved in that decision-making process and therefore, Lockheed Martin does not have a formal company position on engine selection or modernization,” Taiclet said. “We implement the U.S. government decision, and that's what we're doing now. So that is very clearly our role and responsibility and anything outside of that is not an official company position.”

Recall last month at the Paris Air Show when Greg Ulmer, the head of Lockheed’s Aeronautics business, told me the F-35 would at some point down the road need a larger engine to generate the power needed by future weapons. That didn’t sit well with RTX, who took it as a dig against its efforts to increase the power in the existing F135 engine that powers the F-35. Ulmer never criticized RTX or Pratt & Whitney, but the company’s response seems to indicate it struck a nerve. 

“It's government-first equipment—it's a decision of the U.S. government as to what engine is selected for every block of aircraft and what modernization program goes along with that engine,” Taiclet said. “Lockheed Martin's role and responsibility in this is simply to receive engine performance data from the manufacturers and their anticipated performance improvements, whether it's a modernization or replacement option for the future, and then we translate that data to aircraft performance data and information that we then supply to our U.S. government customers. Then we are available to answer questions for their decision-making process.”

While on the subject of Lockheed, the company received a $221 million Army contract to “develop, integrate, manufacture, test, and deliver Indirect Fire Protection Capability-High Energy Laser prototype weapon systems.” The company has previously touted that weapon as “a tactically-relevant electric 300 kW-class laser” that is “the most powerful laser that Lockheed Martin has produced to date.”

The Pentagon is reorganizing its Research and Engineering office, creating three new assistant secretary positions as well as eight deputy assistant secretaries. “The establishment of these roles within Research & Engineering better positions our team to execute upon our mission of preserving our nation’s technological edge, now and into the future,” Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary for research and engineering, said in a statement. “We thank our partners in Congress and across the DOD for getting us to this point.” The list of who’s filling the 11 new positions is here.

GM Defense has demonstrated what it’s calling the “first-of-its-kind, purpose-built Heavy-Duty armored Sport Utility Vehicle.” It’s basically an up-armored Suburban that will be used by the Diplomatic Security Service. What’s different from previous Suburbans used by the government is the armor is built in from the beginning, not added after the fact. A new, special-made vehicle was needed because in 2018 GM stopped building chassis strong enough to hold the weight of the armor. 

“The up-armoring process involved disassembling a new vehicle, welding in armored panels, installing ballistic glass and then reassembling the vehicle,” GM Defense said. “These heavily modified vehicles never performed the same as an original model. They were less maneuverable, maintenance was difficult, and systems that were designed for standard vehicles did not wear well with the additional weight in the harsh austere environments where U.S. diplomats serve. This mechanism also created a lengthy procurement timeline and was not adaptable to growing global threats.”

GM demonstrated a prototype of the new vehicle to the Diplomatic Security Service last month.

Maxar completed a critical design review of its Maxar 300 bus that is part of the Space Development Agency’s Tranche 1 Tracking Layer program. The satellites are designed to provide tracking and warnings of next-generation missiles, including hypersonic weapons. L3Harris Technologies selected Maxar to build the satellites last year.