The Department of Defense (DoD) is requesting new authorities that would allow the Pentagon to initiate the development of new breakthrough technologies without explicit pre-approval from Congress.
Pentagon officials say the current acquisition process is bogged down with bureaucratic obstacles, making it nearly impossible for the U.S. military to keep pace with potential near-peer adversaries, such as China.
According to DoD leadership, the proposal ensures the military can respond to emerging threats and is not an attempt to circumvent legislative oversight to initiate new defense programs.
“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,” Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, 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.”
A section-by-section analysis of the proposed legislation claims the new authority would take two years off the time it currently takes for the Pentagon to initiate new programs.
“I spend a lot of time waiting,” testified Kendall. “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 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.”
China’s ability to rapidly advance new defense technologies is a concern expressed by virtually every corner of the U.S.’s defense apparatus.
“The adversary is not waiting. They are advancing, and they’re advancing quickly,” the Director of the Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), Dr. Sean Kirkpatrick, recently testified to the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.
“If I were to put on some of my old hats, I would tell you, they are less risk averse at technical advancement than we are. They are just willing to try things and see if it works.”
Dr. Kirkpatrick’s comments came as he explained that he had some “concerning indicators” that some unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) being investigated by his office could represent advanced technology originating from a foreign power such as Russia or China.
The Pentagon’s proposal would allow the DoD to spend up to $300 million on new programs without getting Congressional pre-approval. Lawmakers would only be notified after a decision has been made.
However, the proposed legislation would not grant the DoD free rein in technology development.
To initiate a new program, the Secretary of Defense would have to certify there was “a compelling national security need,” which required the leveraging of an “emergent technological advancement” or to “provide a rapid response to an emerging threat.”
The Secretary of Defense would also have to attest that delaying the start of a new program until the next national defense budget cycle would be expected to cause harm to national defense.
Additionally, the proposed authority could only be used for a new program’s initial preliminary design review stages. Beyond this, a program would require Congressional approval to continue.
“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 told lawmakers. “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 authority 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.”
Funding for programs started under this new authority would have to come out of the Pentagon’s existing budget, and the proposed legislation would not grant the DoD any contingency fund.
With the proposed legislation, the Secretary of Defense would retain the authority to waive certain oversight and reporting requirements for new programs. This type of statutory waiver is used to protect the Pentagon’s most sensitive classified projects, known as “Waived-Unacknowledged Special Access Programs.”
The proposal builds on authorities Congress added as part of the FY2023 Defense authorization bill, which instructed the DoD to create new procedures to rapidly buy the capabilities it needs to deal with urgent operational needs or vital national security interests.
However, the existing authority only lets the Pentagon buy commercial items or technologies already in development, not initiate the development of new technologies that have yet to be specifically budgeted.
During a March 23 hearing by the House Armed Services Cyber, Information Technologies, and Innovation subcommittee, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) criticized the Pentagon for taking 16 years to get a commercially available anti-IED technology through the programming, planning, and budgeting phases before it was made operationally available to warfighters.
“To put it simply, it took the Department of Defense 11 years to translate warfighter demand into a funded marketplace demand and five more to deliver a product that saves American service member lives,” said Rep. Gallagher. “It’s the norm, not the exception, too often in this world.”
In response, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Dr. William LaPlante, said uncertainties and delays in Congressional funding are systemic problems in developing and deploying new defense technologies.
“If Congress is going to operate that way, the Pentagon needs more flexibility, said Dr. LaPlante. “We have to continue to have more flexible authorities, and then we must be able to provide and buy things in advance, procure things in advance, and we must also get the budget passed on time.”
“I know it’s unfair because all of you support the budget. But I think … for four years, we have not had a budget out of the last 10, 11 years. It’s not funny to think that if the Chinese had done the same thing, we’d be in a better place.”
The Pentagon believes its new proposal would allow the military to respond more quickly to emerging threats and take advantage of evolving technology.
Officials say a rapid acquisition process is needed to help the U.S. military stay ahead of its competitors, particularly China, which is aggressively trying to field the capability to defeat the U.S.’s ability to project power.
On the other hand, critics may argue that granting the Pentagon the authority to launch new technology pursuits without approval will undermine Congress’s checks and balances over the DoD’s spending.
Pentagon officials will also likely have to alleviate lawmakers’ concerns that the new legislation won’t result in the DoD starting new programs that ultimately turn out to be unnecessary or ineffective, eventually leading to an increase in wasteful spending.
During his testimony, Secretary Kendall expressed that something needed to change if the U.S. wants to maintain a technological advantage over potential adversaries like 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.”
Cover Image: “The Pentagon” by David B. Gleason is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Tim McMillan is a retired law enforcement executive, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing typically focuses on defense, national security, the Intelligence Community and topics related to psychology. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @LtTimMcMillan. Tim can be reached by email: email@example.com or through encrypted email: LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com