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February, 27
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    Air Force pushes for quickstart plan to launch programs without budget

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    WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force still hopes lawmakers will approve a proposal allowing armed services to start work on new programs before a budget is passed, a move that could ease problems brought about by a continuing resolution.

    Andrew Hunter, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said Tuesday that the so-called quickstart legislative proposal would allow the service to progress with initial contract work and early-stage program activities — even if a budget isn’t yet passed and the military was forced to operate under a continuing resolution, or CR, limiting its spending to prior year levels.

    In an interview at the Pentagon with Defense News, Hunter described complications that CRs present when the Air Force tries to launch new programs. Under a CR, he said, the Air Force can hold informal talks with industry. But arranging contracts and setting up vendor pools is trickier if a formal budget isn’t yet passed, he explained.

    The quickstart proposal could change that, he argued.

    “Getting to the point where you can actually get on contract and initiate early-stage programmatic activities, that’s what that legislative proposal is really optimized for,” Hunter said. “That’s one reason why we’re continuing to aggressively pursue that with Congress.”

    Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall first described this proposal to reporters in April, noting it would only allow program offices to perform preliminary work, such as early requirements studies, risk reduction and design activities.

    The original version of the proposal backed by Kendall would have allowed services up to $300 million to start new programs before a budget was passed. It was originally in neither versions of the National Defense Authorization Act proposed to Congress. But Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., brought the proposal up for a floor amendment to the Senate’s NDAA version in July.

    The version that ultimately made it into the Senate NDAA was a slimmed-down approach to the first proposal, allowing $100 million in new-start funding across the Defense Department. Hunter said the Air Force will continue talking to lawmakers during the conference process to resolve differences between the two NDAA versions in hopes the proposal makes it into the final bill.

    Hunter said the inclusion of the proposal in the Senate NDAA was “wonderful, from an Air Force perspective.” And when asked if $100 million was enough, he replied: “It’s a good start.”

    “I would hesitate to say it’s not enough until I’ve [proved] that it’s not enough, by executing up to the limit,” Hunter explained. “Having said that, the $100 million isn’t just for the Air Force, sadly; it’s for all of the services. So we’ll have to see how intense the competition is to use the authority. And if it’s really intense, we’ll have to revisit” the proposal.

    Hunter noted this proposal could come in handy to start up Project Venom, a proposed $50 million program that would allow the service to upgrade six F-16 fighters with autonomous software and experiment with the aircraft’s self-flying capabilities.

    If the legislative proposal passes, Hunter said, the Air Force could readjust funding to start working on modifying those jets before a budget is officially passed. The funding could pay for procuring physical parts for the modified F-16s, he added, as well as design and software work.

    A proposed experimental operations unit, which would help develop the tactics and procedures to fold autonomous drone wingmen — also known as collaborative combat aircraft — into a squadron, would be harder to fund under the quickstart proposal, Hunter said.

    “So much of the work there [in the experimental operations unit] is people, Air Force personnel, and organizational,” Hunter said. “I wouldn’t say there’s not any application to it, but it’s a little more tenuous.”

    When using that authority, he added, the Air Force would have to be cautious not to start something it would be unable to finish.

    He also said House lawmakers and staffers have expressed concern to the Air Force about the potential effect this proposal would have on the budgetary process.

    Some of the changes the Senate made to the proposal when including it in the chamber’s NDAA may address concerns in the House, increasing its chances for passage, according to Hunter. He described the other changes to the proposal, besides the lowering of the funding limit, as “clarifications” that didn’t differ greatly from what the Air Force intended.

    “It’s my hope, and my message to the House folks has been, that we think a lot of the concerns that led to this not being in the House version of the NDAA were addressed in the provision that was adopted” by the Senate, Hunter said. “We think it’s ready to go.”

    If the $100 million version of this legislative proposal passes, Hunter declined to say whether the Pentagon is likely to pitch another version next year that would expand it beyond the current limit.

    “Right now, my job is to persuade them to adopt the authority and then to show them what it looks like in execution,” Hunter said. “I’m going to stick with that for the time being.”

    Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.



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