Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, center, testifies about the 2024 budget request to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on May 2, 2023.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, center, testifies about the 2024 budget request to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on May 2, 2023. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Will SecAF’s Budget-Flexibility Proposal Die on the Hill?

Frank Kendall wants Congress to allow service secretaries to launch new efforts as threats arise, not when budget season rolls around.

The Air Force secretary is asking for more budget flexibility from Congress. But his suggestions likely won’t fly in this year’s defense policy bill.

A legislative proposal sent to Congress on April 12 would allow Air Force, Navy, and Army secretaries to start a weapons program if they are “surprised technologically” by a threat or see a “great opportunity” for new technology—without waiting for a lengthy budget cycle, said Frank Kendall.

“It's a free year and a half or so that we're giving away to the other side while we wait for our bureaucratic process to play out. And the Congress would still have full oversight. We would not be able to go beyond preliminary design review without their approval on a budget cycle,” Kendall said Tuesday during the Ash Carter Exchange hosted by the Special Competitive Studies Project.

Air Force officials said they’re not proposing a slush fund, but rather want the service secretaries to be able to independently execute a “reprioritization within the year of execution”—that is, taking money from under-executing or low-priority efforts to fund something else. The proposal would expand the existing Rapid Acquisition Authority, which enables the Defense Department to reprogram funds, to allow service secretaries to start new programs.

The proposal would limit the secretaries’ funding moves to a total of $300 million per year, all subject to the defense secretary’s approval.

There is “interest” from Capitol Hill, Air Force officials said, but they couldn’t discuss the likelihood of it being included in this year’s defense policy bill. However, Kendall, who has been floating the proposal at recent events, acknowledged on Tuesday that there will be “some resistance” from Congress.

It’s unlikely that lawmakers will greenlight this initiative because they don’t want the Pentagon to start developing a new program before they have an opportunity to vote on it, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“Congress might say, on the budgeting side, you've got tools, you've got reprogramming authorities you could use or ask for, you could ask for us to give you an anomaly on a continuing resolution if there is one. Or you could, if it's important enough, operate under the existing rapid acquisition authorities to go spend money on a new program,” Clark said. 

And on the acquisition side, Clark said Congress has already given the Pentagon new authorities to buy systems, such as the Middle Tier of Acquisition

“Fundamentally, it's sort of at odds with how Congress believes it should be exercising its oversight responsibilities,” Clark said. 

Echoing Clark’s concerns, one congressional source said there’s “possible hope” for the proposal to get into next year’s defense policy bill, but it won’t happen this year. 

While promoting the new initiative, Kendall has been sounding the alarm about the dangers of a continuing resolution, which could hurt a dozen new weapon projects the Air Force wants to start in this year’s budget—including drones that would fly alongside manned fighters into conflict called collaborative combat aircraft

However, the Air Force could have pursued collaborative combat aircraft under the Middle Tier of Acquisition, Clark said, but instead they chose to do it through the traditional avenue of purchasing weapons. 

“And now they're frustrated because they were saying it was going to take a long time to get that through your congressional approval, but they could easily change course and say we're going to do this under the Middle Tier of Acquisition and field this capability right away,” Clark said. 

Lawmakers have been briefed about the proposal, and Air Force officials said they’re working through questions with Congress. 

“Congress will adjudicate the secretary’s recommendation with the seriousness it requires, while evaluating what new value it would provide outside of options the department could otherwise pursue urgent and compelling programs like the MTA or rapid acquisition pathways,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services’s tactical air and land forces subcommittee.

Regardless of Congress’s decision on the initiative, Wittman said he “appreciates” Kendall’s focus on speed.

The acceleration of new technology is essential to deter adversaries, said Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., ranking member of the subcommittee, and he looks forward to “receiving the details of Kendall’s formal legislative proposal when ready.”