Kendall outlines strategy for addressing challenges in space while navigating uncertain budgets at home

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Department of the Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told a space-focused audience April 10 that the United States must – and will – remain pre-eminent in space, but the job is complicated by uncertain and untimely budgets at home.

A prime example, he said in keynote remarks at the Space Symposium in which he also summarized his tenure so far and the priorities ahead, is the budget for the current fiscal year. That spending plan should have been adopted and put in place on Oct. 1, 2023. In reality, Congress approved it in March 2024, six months past the deadline.

“Better late than never is a truism, but let me put this in context,” Kendall said.

By delaying the budget for six months, “we gave up half a year of modernization lead time. Over the last 15 years, we have given up five years, a third of the available time, while we operated under continuing resolutions and waited for new funding to arrive.

“It’s tough to win a race when you give the adversary such an advantage,” he said.

That is true, Kendall suggested, for all military services. But it is especially relevant for space, which is rapidly changing and crowded and is now recognized as a critically important part of national security that is now a frontline warfighting domain.

That fact is universally embraced and especially by China and Russia, he said. And it carries consequences for the United States and its allies.

“When one considers publicly available information on space order of battle alone, it is possible, based on sheer numbers alone, to argue that China has achieved space superiority,” Kendall said. “Of course, there is a lot more to the military balance of power in space than numbers alone, especially publicly available numbers.”

Kendall noted that, “As of January 2024, China had more than 900 satellites in orbit, over half of which have intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to detect U.S. aircraft carriers, expeditionary forces, and air wings. These capabilities combine with a growing arsenal of precision weapons to enable long-range precision strike against U.S. and allied forces,” Kendall said.

“Russia may not be the pacing challenge, but neither can it be ignored. Russia’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine has highlighted this acute threat and Putin has communicated his willingness to target space-based and dual-use capabilities,” he said.

Given that kind of activity, Kendall said – as he has repeatedly – that “my first priority has been modernization.”

With tight budgets, even when approved on time, the desire to modernize while staying within financial bounds can be challenging. It’s even harder for the Space Force, Kendall said, because with 60% of its budget devoted to research and development, it has less “trade space” to find budget offsets that free money for priorities.

That contrasts with the Air Force, Kendall said, which absorbed shrunken budgets for example by reducing orders for some aircraft.

“In the Air Force, we reduced procurement of both F-35 and F-15E/X and other programs. We took our foundational accounts, those focused on sustainment, readiness, and maintenance, to the lowest levels we deemed acceptable so we could maintain a long-term modernization focus,” he said.

Unfortunately, the Space Force generally has much less available trade space than the Air Force. … As a result, our Space Force modernization is progressing, but not at the rate we had envisioned a year ago.”

But Congress has also delivered some relief by giving the Department of Defense a limited—but important—opportunity to provide funding to a small number of carefully vetted “new” programs. Before Congress granted that permission, those “new” programs were strictly prohibited under rules governing spending between the end of the old budget and the approval of the new one.

Kendall told the Space Symposium audience that he has finalized the analysis and selection of those new programs and an announcement will be made soon.

“Last week, the Department of the Air Force received approval from the Secretary of Defense to initiate two programs under the new ‘Quick Start’ authority,” Kendall said, referring to the new spending authority.

“We are in the process of notifying Congress of these programs as required by law and will be announcing them publicly in the next few days. I can say that both relate to new urgently needed space-related capabilities,” he said.

Kendall also highlighted another, separate initiative that he conceived, and the department recently announced to reshape the service and “reoptimize” it to operate in an era of “Great Power Competition.”

“After decades of focus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, where we utilized our space capabilities with near-complete impunity from threats, we must reoptimize, reorient all aspects of the (department) to the changed strategic landscape,” he said.

“We will ensure our people have and can focus on the right mix of skills. Our readiness organizations will focus on current readiness with large-scale exercises and assessments aligned with (Great Power Competition) requirements,” Kendall said.

The effort touches nearly every corner of the Air Force and Space Force. One major effort creates “new integrated organizations focused on future capability development,” Kendall said.
“For the Space Force specifically, you’ve likely heard this means we are creating Space Futures Command as a fourth field command to develop and validate concepts, conduct experimentation and wargames, and perform mission area design.”

The work, he said, is essential not just for the security of the United States, but for the nation’s economic well-being and to ensure global stability.

If anyone doubted that rationale and why the focus on space must remain clear-eyed, Kendall offered context.

“The first shot may well be fired in space, and space may be the decisive domain, but there are almost certainly going to be terrestrial geopolitical stakes at risk, and the joint, and likely a combined force will be called upon to achieve victory together,” he said.

“That joint force will not succeed without the support provided from space and that joint force will not survive if our adversaries are allowed to operate in space with impunity.”