WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry is proposing giving each service the ability to develop new technologies under a flexible budget scheme, as part of a larger push for molecularity in Pentagon systems.

The language, included in section 1702 of Thornberry's markup of the NDAA, would allow the services to have budget flexibility to "experiment with, prototype, and rapidly deploy weapon system components and other technologies" without requiring those programs be tied to an existing major program.

In essence, each service would have a pool of money which would be saved specifically to experiment and develop prototypes of technologies that would benefit multiple systems, rather than having it tied to a single development program.

"The services would allocate some advanced component development and prototyping funds within the research, development, test, and evaluation budget into capability, weapon system component, or technology portfolios, rather than specifying all funding for individual projects or acquisition programs of record," the language reads. "The services would then be able to select and fund prototyping projects during the year of execution without waiting the 2-3 years required for the typical budget process or initiation of a new program of record."

The idea of flexibility for prototypes was previewed by Thornberry in March. Each program would come with a cap of $50 million per project, but the language does not specify how much each service should be putting overall toward such an effort.

William LaPlante, who until recently was the top acquisition official for the US Air Force, said it was "very encouraging" when appraised of the language by Defense News, calling it a "very well-intentioned attempt to institutionalize prototyping and experimentation is a way that will survive the budget process."

In theory, the services have money for this kind of work under the 6.4 research funding line. But, LaPlante noted, those funds are often the first to get raided when times get fiscally tight.

"One of the reasons in the past it has been very hard to find that money [for prototyping] is, typically since all the money is identified with a specific program, that money is all accounted for," LaPlante said following an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It was always very hard to find the resources you needed."

The language specifies that this funding goes toward components and not toward major systems. Because of that, the system would only work if the technology being developed and experimented with will be applicable on multiple systems.

That is why the prototyping flexibility goes hand in hand with Thornberry's goal of having all major defense acquisition programs launched after Jan. 1, 2019, to require modular systems, said Andrew Hunter, a former Pentagon official now with CSIS.

Key to that push is "separating tech development from weapons acquisition, and then in order to make that make sense you need modular designs," Hunter said. "So this all fits together."

The Thornberry language also comes with oversight requirements to make sure the prototype and experimentation money is being used correctly, something LaPlante indicated was a smart inclusion to the bill.

Each service will have to "establish or identify a board to oversee this flexible funding, comprising senior officials with expertise in requirements, research and development, and acquisition," according to the language.

Those boards would be required to produce strategic plans every three years, as well as produce annual recommendations on specific prototype projects to meet high priority war-fighter needs and emerging technological requirements. The makeup of those boards is not specified in the language, aside from requiring the officials have relevant expertise.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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