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Kendall explains why success in space requires ‘transformational change’

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Emphasizing that space capabilities are “important to our strategy of integrated deterrence” and the reason U.S. Space Force must drive “transformational” change, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall offered a blunt assessment April 19 of the challenges today in space but also optimism that the United States would maintain its dominance in that domain.

In a keynote address to the 2023 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he noted the critical role space plays today in every aspect of national security and that maintaining a functional, assured presence is essential, especially given China’s activity in space.

Unlike the recent past when the United States had virtually free reign in space, today the domain is crowded and dangerous, home to thousands of satellites operated by dozens of nations, widespread space debris, and most importantly, several aggressive and capable space-faring nations who consider space a warfighting domain.

Foremost among them, Kendall said, is China. 

“Among China’s military priorities, space ranks very high,” Kendall said, emphasizing a theme he has been voicing frequently since becoming Secretary. “China views space as a military operational domain and is developing and fielding forces intended to dominate in that domain." 

“Second, China does not seem to be constrained by concerns about debris generation or strategic stability. This is the environment in which the Space Force must deter and prevail,” he said. 

Countering these developments is why the Space Force was created, and why it must be nimble and focused, Kendall suggested. 

China’s advances “are particularly worrisome in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s lack of transparency regarding military space doctrine, its failure to adhere to or advance global norms, its reluctance to allow open communication between military leaders, and the corresponding risk of miscalculation,” he said. 

Kendall spent most of the balance of his remarks outlining in detail the budgetary and programmatic response managed by the Space Force to confront the new reality in space and ensure capabilities such as GPS, communications and missile warning remain failsafe and reliable in a more hostile and contested domain. 

“The United States and its allies and partners have some significant military advantages. One of those is experience,” he said, adding: “I believe that deterrence can succeed. Our strategy of integrated deterrence is built on that premise and on the strengths of our partnerships with like-minded nations that share our values.” 

The Space Force’s budget request for fiscal year 2024, which begins Oct. 1, is 15% more than the budget it has this year. (The current budget is 30% greater than the year before.) 

But benefits from that increase are diminished, Kendall said, if Congress fails to pass the budget on time. 

“My deepest fear today isn’t China; it is the loss of the only unrecoverable asset – time – and what that could imply,” he said. “I’m afraid that we face an unpredictable political situation in the U.S. in which a yearlong continuing resolution is a real possibility. I don’t know anyone on Capitol Hill who wants to see a yearlong CR, but I also don’t know anyone on Capitol Hill who has defined a likely route to avoid[ing] one.” 

A CR has become a common device that prevents the government from shutting down while lawmakers work out differences on a new spending plan. A CR simply extends most, if not all, the rules for how money is spent from the previous - and expiring – budget year to the next with insufficient allowance for how conditions or circumstances change. Kendall and other senior leaders worry, however, because a CR would prohibit new programs from starting while continuing to fund programs that are past their prime or those delivering capability that is no longer relevant. 

In response, Kendall pointed to a legislative proposal endorsed by the Department of Defense and the White House that, if approved by Congress, would give Kendall and the other service secretaries new – the limited – power to divert already appropriated funds to new technologies. That ability is now prohibited under rules governing the way money can be spent when the government is funded by a temporary, stop-gap mechanism known as a “continuing resolution.” 

Restricting how money is spent costs valuable time, Kendall said, and keeps promising technologies from being developed and deployed at the fastest rate possible. 

That is a problem given China’s focus on space. Since China declared space a “warfighting domain” in 2015, Kendall said, “its on-orbit presence has grown by well over 300% with more than 700 satellites now in orbit.” 

It “has developed and tested anti-satellite weapons" and “developed ground-based laser weapons and jammers to disrupt, degrade, and damage satellite sensors, communication, and navigation systems,” he said.  

“We are all united in our goal of providing Air and Space forces that can deter and, if needed, prevail against any opponent, anytime, anywhere, including when we project power with our partners wherever it is needed, on or around the planet,” Kendall said. 

“We are seeing success in these efforts. The Space Force is in the midst of a transformation.” 

All of the focus and activity, Kendall said, reflects the central role space plays today in national security and critical functions of everyday life that includes banking, commerce, and communication.