Air Force secretary weighs in on Musk's Ukraine decision, tensions with China and the future of war

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U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall does not shy away from commenting on controversy — even as it relates to the world’s richest person and a key Department of Defense contractor.

Kendall weighed in Tuesday after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk acknowledged withholding Starlink satellite service to Ukraine as it planned a surprise attack on Russian forces last year. Musk was criticized for the disclosure, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called for an investigation into SpaceX. “At that time, SpaceX took some unilateral decisions regarding what to do in Ukraine. They were not under contract with the United States. I think they were definitely donating their services essentially, so they had discretion,” Kendall said in an interview with CNBC’s Morgan Brennan from the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber conference.

The dynamic has since changed. We write agreements with those businesses, they get us what we need at a reasonable cost,” said the Air Force secretary. We write agreements with those businesses, they get us what we need at a reasonable cost,” said the Air Force secretary.

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The public frenzy, triggered by a revelation in Walter Isaacson’s new “Elon Musk” biography, added fuel to an already simmering debate about whether the U.S. government and allies are too reliant on SpaceX –and particularly its founder and chief executive — for national security matters.

“SpaceX is an important supplier to the government launch services, and we do buy some communications, and so on,” said Kendall. We do this through business agreements that we can enforce. CQ-Roll Call, Inc. The Air Force and Space Force, which are under its purview, have tried to take advantage of the new landscape. They are seeking new satellite and launch capabilities, have pushed for more funding for initiatives in space and at times have crafted more creative contracts.The effort has spanned multiple administrations, regardless of political affiliation, as the military aims to move more quickly and more affordably where possible.“The military services that nations, great powers in particular, get from space are very important to their success. This is true for us. It’s true for potential adversaries,” Kendall said.

He added that the Space Force is being designed with all of this in mind.

Tensions with China rise

The potential adversary the Pentagon is most focused on countering — on earth and arguably in space — is China. A possible conflict with Beijing was a major topic of the Air Force secretary’s keynote at the AFA conference this week.

He said China is preparing for war with the U.S. but added that doesn’t mean such a conflict is inevitable.

Kendall has been studying China’s military buildup efforts for over a decade. That buildup has raised concerns, he said, about a Chinese strategy to design a force to deter and defeat American intervention in the Western Pacific by exploiting perceived U.S. vulnerabilities.

What would that mean if China invades Taiwan, or the perhaps more likely possibility of a blockade? Does the U.S. Military have what it takes to respond to that, should they be called upon to do so?

“We are in a position, but there are more operational risks than we would like to see.” … The Air Force has taken steps to counter next-generation threats. It has a list of “operational imperatives” that span everything from modernization of the air-based leg of the nuclear triad, with the B-21 Raider that’s expected to make its first flight later this year, to a “space order-of-battle,” to the development of a sixth-generation fighter jet in the Next Generation Air Dominance competition.

The plan for NGAD also involves what the service refers to as uncrewed Collaborative Combat Aircraft, or drones. The Air Force is dedicating billions of dollars to autonomous capabilities over the next five years, believing the technology is mature enough and cost-effective.

Like other aspects of the government and the private sector, the Air Force is also incorporating artificial intelligence applications.

“It’s really a basket of technologies that offer a different range of capabilities. Kendall explained that military applications included autonomy, pattern recognition and data analytics. “Some of the tasks that humans normally do can be automated, done more accurately, and faster, through AI,” Kendall stated. “Humans are always in the loop, and will be responsible for decisions made regarding lethality,” Kendall said. We cannot ignore the technology. It will provide a significant military advantage. The future of funding and defense policy is so important. As has happened multiple times in recent years, Congress appears unlikely to pass a fiscal 2024 budget before a end-of-the-month deadline.

Analysts expect lawmakers to pass a continuing resolution (CR) that temporarily maintains the status quo on government spending. There is also a growing risk of a partial shutdown of the government, or, even worse for military modernizations, the possibility of an extended continuing resolution. Kendall said that all CRs are very detrimental. They are very inefficient. Modernization, which is vital, is delayed. The delay in increasing production of programs, for instance, makes it difficult to plan and move forward. “