SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Pentagon leaders warned Congress that without a full-year budget, key programs, from uncrewed aircraft to hypersonics, could hit lengthy delays — and risk America’s standing in what the Defense Department sees as a technological race with China.

“We cannot waste time,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in a panel discussion at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum here.

In the last two years, the Air Force has introduced a set of goals meant to outcompete China’s military — among them systems like the Collaborative Combat Aircraft, uncrewed planes meant to fight alongside F-35s later this decade. The CCA itself is an important platform, Kendall said, but more important is the larger goal it represents: finding faster and cheaper systems.

“The loss of time just from when we started this concept, when we came up with the idea to today, is two years,” he said. “If we don’t get a ‘24 budget, we may lose another year.”

Sitting next to Kendall on the panel, Heidi Shyu, head of research and engineering in the Pentagon, said the inconsistent funding has slowed the testing of hypersonics, another key technology.

The Defense Department’s Test Resource Management Center requested more funding for these efforts in FY24, but it can’t move forward without an appropriation. Shyu said her office will send Congress later this month a list of systems — with state-level data — of systems in her portfolio that would be affected by a yearlong continuing resolution, or CR.

“China spends an enormous amount of money on test assets,” Shyu told reporters. “This is where we have [a] shortfall.”

The U.S. government has been funded through CRs for the past two months, after a last-minute deal in Congress. These bills freeze spending at last year’s levels and halt new starts and new money.

The current short-term bill has a staggered expiration date, ending in mid-January and early February.

Because the government so often fails to pass funding bills on time, the Pentagon plans its budget knowing it may not be able to start new contracts in the first quarter. For that reason, Army acquisition chief Doug Bush told Defense News, the effects of these last two CRs have been limited.

That changes if there isn’t a spending deal by January or beyond, he said. In that case, Bush added, much of the Army’s plans for next year will be delayed.

“I have dozens of programs that are hitting important new milestones in FY24 in the areas of air defense, long-range strike, intel systems, TITAN,” Bush said, referring to the Army’s new targeting system planned for later this decade. “We’ve got a wide range of things that are right in the middle of either finishing development or going into production.

Adding to the urgency is part of a bill passed earlier this year to raise the debt ceiling: If all 12 of Congress’ appropriations bills aren’t passed before January, there will be a 1% cut in all government spending.

That provision has made it much harder for Pentagon employees to plan for future spending levels, said the Defense Department’s top acquisition official, Bill LaPlante.

“What we told everybody as they were building their budget [was] ... remember, this is not like previous years,” LaPlante said in a gaggle with reporters. “There’s going to be some hard choices.”

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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