WASHINGTON — The Defense Department would get limited authority to start working on urgent new programs before they are officially funded under a provision in the proposed fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act.

This legislative proposal, which the Air Force has strongly backed and refers to as “quickstart,” would allow services to start new programs or speed up existing efforts without Congress formally approving them. It’s meant to address the lengthy periods of time lost while services wait for lawmakers to pass their budgets — times during which the military can’t get started on new programs.

The final version of the NDAA, which House and Senate lawmakers hashed out in conference last week, would cap at $100 million the spending allowed under this proposal. That is a combined total for all of the military services and comes in lower than the $300 million included in the original proposal Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall backed earlier this year.

Before a service can use some of these funds to start a program, it will have to spell out to the defense secretary what the urgent or emergency national security need is, the cost, and why the program can’t wait until the budget is finished.

But while the slimmed-down quickstart provision is reduced from what the Air Force sought, service officials have indicated it would be welcome — particularly because House lawmakers originally didn’t include any form of it in their NDAA.

Andrew Hunter, the service’s acquisition chief, told Defense News in September the Senate’s inclusion of the quickstart provision was “wonderful,” calling the $100 million it would authorize “a good start.”

However, Hunter noted the $100 million would be divided among multiple services. If the competition for the money is “really intense,” he said, the Pentagon may want to revisit the proposal.

Hunter said at the time the quickstart proposal would let the service move forward with initial contract work and early-stage program activities, even if a budget has not yet passed. Kendall also told reporters in April the preliminary work the proposal would allow would include early requirements studies, risk reduction and design activities.

Hunter said this kind of early funding could help the Air Force with Project Venom, which would upgrade six F-16 fighters with autonomous software so the service can experiment with self-flying jets. Quickstart funding would allow the Air Force to start buying parts to modify the F-16s and pay for design and software work, he said.

Kendall said during a November discussion at the Center for a New American Security the quickstart provision wasn’t only designed for continuing resolutions — in which a fiscal year begins without a passed budget, forcing a department to operate under the previous year’s funding levels — but also the regular budget process.

Even the normal budgeting process costs the Air Force a year to 18 months in lost time on new programs, Kendall said, and CRs worsen that.

“All that time is time we’re ceding to China,” Kendall said. “We need to move quickly, and just giving away time that we could use doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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