Over the last several years, Congress has passed several pieces of legislation meant to speed up the Defense Department’s acquisition system. Now, DoD officials have an idea of their own: they’re asking for new authorities that would let the military services begin early work on critical new programs without lawmakers’ explicit permission, arguing the current approval process takes too long and risks putting the U.S. military at a technological disadvantage.
The reforms Congress has passed since the middle of the last decade have been focused on moving technologies through DOD’s acquisition bureaucracy more quickly. But none of them have made a significant dent in the delays that come from the annual budgeting and appropriations process.
Defense officials say this one would. The department’s proposal wouldn’t apply to everything — the new authority could only be used for technologies that they believe are needed quickly to respond to emerging threats. But right now, that sort of rapid response is next to impossible, said Frank Kendall, the secretary of the Air Force who has been pressing the idea for years.
“It would expand our rapid acquisition authority so the military departments can more quickly respond to emerging threats and take advantage of evolving technology, within reasonable constraints,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. “This legislative proposal would allow progress on compelling national security needs that would otherwise be delayed until the next submission and approval of the president’s budget.”
Kendall said he believes the new authority would shave about two years off the time it takes for the military to begin “new start” programs. Under the current system, he said, promising new technologies are left essentially in limbo while individual proposals make their way through the DoD and Congressional budgeting processes.
“I spend a lot of time waiting,” he said. “We spent the first year I was in office defining what we needed to do to stay ahead of the basin challenge ahead of China, and I had to wait a year to get that into our budget submission. Now I’m waiting roughly another year, under normal circumstances, for that budget to be passed. If there’s a full-year year continuing resolution, I’ll wait yet another year. And that is all time that we’re giving away to someone who’s racing to be ahead of us technologically. We cannot afford that time.”
If Congress agrees to the proposal as part of next year’s Defense authorization bill, DoD would be able to spend up to $300 million on new programs without getting Congressional approval: lawmakers would only be notified about a new start after a decision has been made.
But DoD would have to meet a relatively high bar to use the authority. The Secretary of Defense would need to certify that the technology involved is urgent and simply can’t wait for the next budget cycle. The department would also have to specifically identify a funding source for the new program from within its existing budget. And the authority could only be used for the earliest stages of a new program. Congress would have to sign off on any work on that program beyond the stage of its preliminary design review.
“We would be able to do the low-cost initial stages of a program — the system engineering, maybe a little risk reduction, and maintain competition without making any long-term commitments,” Kendall said. “All of that is relatively inexpensive, but it takes time. And then Congress would have full authority to decide whether we could proceed beyond that point or not. We would probably use reprogramming for this, and Congress would have authority over that. So there wouldn’t be any real loss of the authorities that the Congress has over what we do, but we will gain at least a year and a half of lead time to getting things to the field.”
The proposal would build on authorities Congress added as part of the 2023 year’s Defense authorization bill. That provision told DoD to create new procedures to rapidly buy the capabilities it needs to deal with urgent operational needs or vital national security interests. But DoD said the existing authority only lets it buy commercial items, or technologies that are already in development — not new technologies that haven’t been specifically budgeted.
Kendall said the department — and the Air Force in particular — needs to move ahead with divesting old systems and investing in new ones as quickly as possible, largely because of the perceived threat from China.
“China is aggressively trying to field the capability to defeat our ability to project power, and they’ve been working on it for at least 20 years … they have analyzed carefully how we fight and what we fight with, and they’ve been thoughtful about what they need to invest in to try to circumvent that or defeat it,” Kendall said.” That’s the reason I’m so obsessed with getting on with the next generation of capabilities. Holding on to things that are becoming obsolete over time just doesn’t make any sense.”