The Department of Defense is pushing Congress to give it the authority to start new developmental programs before a budget is approved—a change the Pentagon argues would make critical new programs less vulnerable to Washington gridlock.
“Time is going by, and all those things that we worked hard to understand and formulate good solutions to, we’re not able to act on them yet,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall told reporters at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. April 19. “That’s a lot to give away to an adversary when it’s totally unnecessary.”
The legislative proposal, sent to Capitol Hill by the Pentagon on April 12, is called “Rapid Response to Emergent Technology Advancement or Threats.” The DOD wants up to $300 million per year in development funds that could be used “in response to urgent operational need”—creating a discretionary pool of money and the Congressional authority to get started on vital projects.
Kendall has set an ambitious program of modernization for the Air Force and Space Force to ensure the U.S. stays ahead of China, a main concern for the Biden administration, the U.S. military, and lawmakers. In its 2024 budget alone, the Air Force has 12 brand new programs, sometimes called new starts.
But there’s a problem: the services can’t begin many efforts. New starts require authorization from Congress through the budgeting cycle for a new fiscal year, creating what the DOD sees as a needless two-year delay to get started on new tech. The fresh authority, if created, would shave at least a year off of development time for some new starts, Kendall estimated.
“Our pacing challenge, China, is moving aggressively to field systems designed to defeat the U.S. and our standard practices are not responsive to this threat,” the DOD wrote in its legislative proposal to Congress. “If we want to be competitive with China, we can’t cede two years of schedule to them.”
The DOD proposal noted that America’s advanced military technology underpins its strength. The Pentagon doesn’t want to wait for Congress while other countries come up with breakthroughs. Under its proposal, the DOD could “initiate new start development activities” to “leverage an emergent technological advancement of value to the national defense” or “provide a rapid response to an emerging threat.”
Asked what he would consider his top priority if granted such authority, Kendall cited Collaborative Combat Aircraft, the future unmanned aircraft that will fly alongside the Air Force’s manned platforms. CCAs are already a large part of the Air Force’s future fleet plans, but the service is currently not allowed to start working on the program, Kendall noted.
“This is a limited authority,” Kendall said. “It would allow us to go through the preliminary design review phase.” He stressed that the Pentagon is not trying to take away Congress’s authority to ultimately decide what the DOD spends its money on.
Congress is currently divided, with the House held by Republicans and Democrats in narrow control of the Senate. While the Biden administration has submitted its fiscal 2024 budget, work on the Hill is already behind schedule before the new fiscal year begins at the end of September. For the past two decades, the government has spent considerable time operating under continuing resolutions—stopgap spending bills that fund the government at current levels but don’t allow new programs. While there is bipartisan consensus that CRs have a negative impact on the military, a fight over the looming debt ceiling and the Biden administration’s broader spending aims will likely leave the Pentagon hanging on past the current budget’s sell-by date.
“I am now waiting, and we’ll be waiting for quite some time to go forward,” Kendall said.
Kendall testified on Capitol Hill about his budget April 18 and pitched the proposal to lawmakers. Twenty-four hours later, on the drive over to the conference in Colorado, Kendall realized he needed to flag the administration’s proposal more publicly, he said.
“We’ve been in a position for some time to move forward on those things that we decided we need to do, but now we’re waiting for the budget process,” Kendall said. “That’s what I’m more conscious of now, that I’m in a phase where we’re trying to persuade the Congress to give us the money, and then Congress, of course, has to pass laws before we can do this work.”
During a separate hearing that occurred while Kendall was on the Hill, the House Armed Services Committee grilled DOD and military leaders in charge of the Pacific, with lawmakers expressing bipartisan concern the U.S. was lagging behind China in crucial technology. Kendall, who formerly served as the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, and the DOD said that is exactly the issue they want to address with the new proposal.
“In prior decades, United States military advantage was built on technological advantage driven primarily by DOD investment,” the Defense Department said. “DOD was able to plan, develop, and field technology years before adversaries. Today DOD investment totals less than 3 percent of all dollars spent globally on research. Therefore, emerging technology is not always predictable and is not confined to the United States. Peer adversaries are able to take advantage of emerging technology at the same time as, or faster than, the United States.”
Kendall hopes his warnings will get through to Congress, arguing the services are “trying to go as fast as they can.” But the issue is how fast the legislature will let them go.
“There’s one aspect of this that I find particularly troubling right now, and we’ve done something about it,” Kendall said of the proposal. “I think there is a willingness to discuss this kind of initiative that might not have been there in the past.”