As the U.S. Defense Department struggles with life under the full effect of the 2011 Budget Control Act and its annual sequestration cuts, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief is looking at allowing short-term cost exceptions for rotorcraft and post-Joint Strike Fighter research efforts.

Frank Kendall, the acquisition chief, told the ComDef 2013 conference Sept. 4 that he is looking to follow in the footsteps of earlier defense officials in the 1990s who identified and fostered specific technology development efforts even as overall budgets dropped.

Now, with automatic budget rescissions known as sequestration about to become an annual affair, Kendall is looking to shield rotorcraft and so-called air dominance efforts. He would do so by allowing near-term allowances against meeting cost caps now required for all new programs under the Better Buying Power acquisition reform initiative he and other officials started in the first term of the Obama administration.

The moves come as defense officials would like to ensure U.S. military technological dominance in the future, which requires continued investment now, even at the expense of force structure, if Congress cannot avert the full cuts of the budget law. “I do not want to be in a position of technological parity or inferiority with anyone in the world,” Kendall said.

He said he recently saw an estimate of the number of engineers — “tens of thousands” — who might leave the defense sector under the full effect of budget cuts. “These are engineers that we need,” Kendall said. “Once people leave, I don’t think they’re coming back.”

While he did not identify specific rotorcraft efforts, Kendall named the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and its air-dominance study effort as one project that could be allowed to continue, despite ostensibly not meeting future budget restrictions.

Initial results of the study into how to enable U.S. air dominance over a peer adversary in the 2040-50 time frame were briefed to Pentagon and service leadership earlier this summer (Aerospace DAILY, May 20). Work on the study began in January, led by Darpa and involving weekly meetings with senior Air Force and Navy personnel.

The study aligns with Darpa’s belief that layering of technologies rather than single breakthroughs will be required to provide the capabilities needed to meet future defense challenges. It grew out of discussions last year between incoming Darpa Director Arati Prabhakar, Kendall and service leaders.

Kendall asked the Air Force and Navy to work under Darpa’s leadership “and instead of a requirements top-down approach to what air dominance looks like for 2040-50, take a bottom-up approach and look at what technologies are ready now and what will be ready in combination that will provide air dominance against a peer adversary,” says Stephen Walker, Darpa deputy director.

Fiscal 2014 begins Oct. 1, and at this point federal officials across Washington are hoping for a continuing resolution of 2013 appropriations to keep the government operating. Some conservative lawmakers have threatened to allow the government to shut down in order to keep funds from going to the so-called Obamacare health care law. Unless Congress can reach a deal — sometimes referred to as a grand bargain, for its need to involve debt and deficit reduction, tax reform and federal spending — the 2011 budget law’s restrictions will remain in effect and another round of sequestration could be felt by officials later this year.