COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Time is the enemy for contending with potential threats from China and Congress can help by giving the Defense Department new, limited acquisition authorities to move out quickly on the early stages of new program starts and reduce their risks before a budget is authorized and enacted, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on Wednesday.

The Biden administration is actively seeking those authorities to accelerate new program starts, he told reporters in the morning at the annual Space Symposium here.

The Office of Management and Budget recently sent Congress a legislative proposal to allow for new programs to start without waiting “for an entire budget cycle” so that research and development and systems engineering up through the preliminary design review can get underway while maintaining competition through the early program phases, Kendall said.

So far, in conversations with “some committee leadership” on the Hill, the “general reaction has been very positive,” he said.

The government can’t spend on new programs until funding has been appropriated and authorized, a challenge that can become more acute when Congress doesn’t agree on a federal budget at the outset of a fiscal year every October and passes a continuing resolution (CR) to keep agencies and departments running at prior year funding levels until resolving the impasse. The problems for programs become worse the longer a CR lasts.

These authorities would also help “in case there are technological” surprises or opportunities to get into the beginning phase of a program without congressional approval, Kendall said.

There are 12 new programs the Air Force wants to begin in fiscal year 2024, which begins Oct. 1, that have already been approved through the internal DoD budget process last summer and now await congressional action, Kendall said. The budget request went to Congress in March.

“Now we’re waiting for Congress to act,” Kendall said, pointing out these programs could have begun in 2022 if the limited acquisition authorities were in effect and would not be “very expensive.”

These delays are “totally unnecessary,” Kendall said. The operational and comparative analyses behind these programs were done more than a year ago, and he had recommendations in hand last spring to “most effectively and rapidly spend money in order to get better capabilities” even before going through the budget process with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, he said.

One program he mentioned was the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), which would be unmanned, autonomous, artificial intelligence-enabled aircraft that would operate with manned aircraft in the battlespace. An Air Force spokesman declined to name the other 11 new starts.

Kendall said he has brought a “great sense of urgency” to the Air Force to respond to the challenges.

And China is the big challenge.

“I recently returned from a trip to the Indo-Pacific region, where I visited South Korea, Republic in the Philippines, India, Singapore, Guam, and Indo-Pacom [Indo-Pacific Command] headquarters in Hawaii,” Kendall later told attendees at the conference. “Everywhere I went, concern about security and stability in the region and concerns about China’s military buildup and intent are increasing.”

Kendall highlighted China’s continued military advances, particularly in space, noting that U.S. defense “acquisition programs move at the pace of money and engineering and you have to get the money first and then you do the engineering,” which is why the limited acquisition authorities are needed rather than wait for Congress to act.

The DoD would notify Congress that it had begun a program and would only go as far as the early design review, at which point the traditional budget process would kick-in, he said.

Previously, Congress has been “reluctant” to give up even “this much authority,” which overall is “minimal” for a “very high return in terms of time,” Kendall said.

“We spent a lot of time trying to educate our four committees in particular about the severity of the threat and what it’s doing, and how important time is,” he said. “So, I think there is a willingness to discuss this kind of initiative that might not have been there in the past.”