New X-Plane on the Horizon?

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Go to any defense conference, and there is a universal message: Times are tough and the funding outlook is grim for industry.

But, there may be hope for the industrial base -- even if the funding crunch continues.

The Pentagon’s top procurement official is considering a strategy of funding research and development projects despite budget pressure, a slight shift from his fervent push to only proceed with well understood, affordable programs.

Frank Kendall, under secretary of defense for acquisition, says that the increasing pressure on the Pentagon budget – which could disproportionately threaten the research and procurement accounts – is driving him to consider moving slightly away from his staunch support for embarking only on programs that are considered “affordable,” and for which senior leaders have clear understanding of the cost and risk.

Such a strategy of funding specific investment projects could lead to the first new X-plane in a generation of military technology, he says. Kendall says he is starting an air dominance initiative with the military services and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that could lead to the next-generation fighter. And, he says, it could be the first of such low-level projects he views as a potential hedge against budget pressure eroding the U.S. global military advantage.

Kendall made his comments during the keynote speech at Aviation Week’s Defense Technology & Affordability Requirements conference near Washington.

He says that in earlier periods of substantial downward defense spending, some key leaders made conscious decisions to invest in specific technologies, guarding that funding from the budget axe. Though all of those programs did not come to fruition, among them were such stalwarts as the F-16, Abrams tank and Patriot air and missile defense system.

An advantage to this strategy is providing at least some funding to keep the cutting edge of the industrial base working on advanced technologies. It also better postures the government to deal with adversaries that may not have restricted budgets and whose technology advances at a rapid pace.

Kendall says that he is only early in the process of considering this shift. And, he says this does not indicate an abandonment of the push for affordability for Pentagon programs.

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