An artist's conception of the Air Force's collaborative combat aircraft concept.

An artist's conception of the Air Force's collaborative combat aircraft concept. Lockheed Martin

Let Me Start Weapons R&D Faster, Air Force Secretary Asks Congress

Frank Kendall wants freedom from rules that require lawmakers’ approval to get anti-China weapons off the ground.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado—The Air Force secretary is pitching Congress on a proposal to relax rules that delay service efforts to start work on new weapons.

“I feel like I've been trying to get something like this done for decades and we finally got it up as a legislative proposal,” Frank Kendall said during a Wednesday morning briefing at the Space Symposium here. “Given the threats that we face, I am hopeful that the Congress will approve this and let's move forward and we won't be sitting around waiting for a year or year and a half or two years for appropriations to occur and new starts to be authorized.”

For the past year, Kendall has been itching to start several key weapons programs meant to help counter China’s military buildup, including new drones that would fly in concert with human-piloted warplanes.

“The problem that I have is the amount of time I have to wait for the Congress to act on the things that we want to do,” he said.

Those things include 12 new weapons projects that stem from the secretary’s seven operational imperatives, a list of technological priorities needed to counter China. Kendall has been talking about the list since late 2021, and included the projects in the 2024 budget request he sent to Congress last month.

“A year ago, I had in my hand a number of recommendations of how to most effectively and rapidly spend money in order to get to better capabilities,” the secretary said. “So a year has passed since we did the analysis [and] formulated our recommendations.”

Kendall said he fears a divided Congress could prevent lawmakers from greenlighting new weapon programs, especially if fiscal 2024 spending is locked at 2023 levels unger a yearlong continuing resolution. With that in mind, the Air Force has asked Congress to allow it to begin developing new weapons projects outside of the annual budget progress.

This “would give the department some authority to, in case we're surprised [by an adversary] technologically, or we see a technological opportunity, to initiate early-phase parts of a program without waiting for congressional approval,” Kendall said.

He said his proposed authority would permit new spending on design and engineering, but not on mass production, which would need congressional approval or funding from existing coffers.

“That would buy us at least a year,…a year and a half, or two years in terms of lead time,” Kendall said.

The Air Force secretary, who oversees both the Air Force and the Space Force, singled out the collaborative combat aircraft, a drone that would fly with fighter jets and bombers, as an effort he would have liked to have started last year.

Kendall has been beating the drum about speeding up weapons projects to counter China’s military build-up since he was the defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment more than a decade ago.

The Pentagon’s decades-old bureaucratic budgeting process means it often takes years before weapons projects are put on contract. A congressionally chartered panel is making recommendations to reform that budgeting process so weapons can get from conception to the battlefield faster.