WASHINGTONThe U.S. Air Force on April 16 announced the selection of its first two programs under the newly established “quick start” initiative, championed by Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall. This initiative, authorized by Congress in the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, is designed to expedite the development of critical technologies for the Department of Defense.

Kendall revealed the selected programs during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Tracking moving targets

One of the programs is to develop space and airborne sensors to track moving targets. The Air Force needs to replace large surveillance planes like the E-8 JSTARS that are considered too vulnerable in modern combat scenarios, particularly against advanced air defenses deployed by adversaries like China. The Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office are collaborating on the development of satellites that would track objects of interest on the ground, like vehicles and ships, in near-real time and from space. Pilotless drones also would be part of the sensor mix. 

Resilient GPS

The other project selected is the so-called “GPS light” satellite constellation. This would explore the feasibility of using commercial technologies to build smaller and less expensive GPS satellites to augment the traditional Global Positioning System. The program is led by the Space Force’s Space Systems Command.

The idea behind quick start is to allow the military services to begin doing engineering studies and development work before Congress approves the actual budget for the program.

Kendall argued that this would help the services refine the long-term requirements for these programs and have a better sense of how much they will cost. In the case of moving targets indicator, the Air Force requested funding for fiscal year 2025 but would start the work in 2024. The Space Force intends to request funding for the new GPS satellite design, which Kendall described as “resilient GPS,” in fiscal year 2026 but this initiative would allow the Space Force to start development and engineering work sooner. 

Kendall made the case that a lot of time is lost while the military services wait for Congress to pass budgets, and that makes it difficult for DoD to field new technologies and keep pace with adversaries. 

The Air Force did not specify how much funding will be allocated to get these projects kick-started. The NDAA authorized $100 million combined for all the military services per year, although Kendall originally recommended $300 million.

Selected for potential benefits

Air Force officials during a call with reporters explained that the two projects were selected because of their potential to benefit all the armed forces and the technological leaps they would provide. These officials noted that the funding to quick start projects is not an actual congressional appropriation, but only an authorization. That means money will need to be taken out of other projects for the early-stage activities in moving target indicators and the resilient GPS satellites. 

DoD already has authorities to do rapid acquisitions, but this new program allows the service secretaries to be able to identify priority items. 

One of the Air Force officials who briefed reporters said getting an early start allows the service to better articulate a program’s requirements and better understand how much money will be needed. “We need to be able to demonstrate to the Hill what these quick start projects look like and be able to say ‘here’s how we’re thinking about the programs,’” the official said. “There’s been a perception that we are blaming the Hill for the amount of time it takes to be able to get underway. And that’s not the intent.” 

The objective is to shorten the time “between identifying a problem and start executing projects,” the official said. Even when budgets are passed on time, it typically takes 18 to 24 months from the time a need is identified to when it’s actually funded. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...