COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Weary of the annual tradition of waiting for Congress to approve a budget before kick-starting new programs, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is proposing a workaround.
Kendall told reporters April 19 at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., that the service has submitted a legislative proposal that would give the Air Force and Space Force authority to start programs or speed existing efforts without formal approval from lawmakers.
“What it would do is it would give the department the authority to, in places where we’re surprised technologically or we see technological opportunity, to initiate the early phases of a program without waiting for Congressional approval,” he said.
The Air Force last month released its fiscal 2024 budget request, which includes funding for the Space Force and contains 12 new programs service officials identified as needed capabilities. Among those is the Collaborative Combat Aircraft program, a fleet of as many as 1,000 drones that could perform a number of missions, from strike to surveillance to electronic warfare.
Now, the Air Force has to wait for Congress to sign off on its proposal, a process that likely will continue through the end of this year and into next.
“A year has passed since we’ve done the analysis,” Kendall said. “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.”
The proposal, which the Defense Department sent to Congress on April 12, includes language that says, “the effort cannot be delayed until the next submission of the budget without harming the national defense.”
Kendall said he’s had positive conversations with lawmakers about the request.
While the authority the Air Force wants would allow the service to quickly begin work on initiatives, Kendall said there would be limits on how far they could go without sign-off from the Hill. Program offices could only conduct activities like early requirements studies, risk-reduction and design work.
And because the authority would apply to a program’s early phases, Kendall insisted the proposal is “essentially free,” requiring only small funding shifts between existing accounts.
The Pentagon’s budget process has long been a target for criticism. As Kendall noted, it requires planners to lay out new programs more than two years before receiving funding, often causing major modernization programs and technology development to lag. While there have been calls for budget reform since its inception, an urgency to fix the system has grown in recent years, with critics citing it as a leading impediment to quickly fielding commercial technology to military users.
Recognizing these concerns, Congress directed the creation of a Commission on Planning, Program, Budgeting and Execution Reform — a 14-member panel that is crafting ideas for streamlining the funding approval process. It expects to release an interim report in August and is on schedule to make its formal recommendations by March 2024.
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.