NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland –
Offering equal doses of praise and objective - but disquieting - reality, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall told a major gathering of military and defense logistics experts Monday that the United States’ ability to move people and goods anywhere, at any time, has been unrivaled. But he warned that the nation’s logistics enterprise must adapt to be relevant for the challenges of today’s world.
Kendall’s keynote remarks to the National Defense Transportation Association and the U.S. Transportation Command’s fall meeting at a hotel in suburban Washington offered in unvarnished terms the challenges facing the United States posed by China and what the U.S. must do to best maintain global stability.
“I’m finding in my three months with the Air Force and Space Force, that our ability to think out-of-the-box and to adopt both technically and operationally innovative approaches to new and emerging operational problems is better than it might be, but not as good as it needs to be,” Kendall said to the audience of several hundred.
“In my opinion, we have not fully internalized the significance of that development or what it means for our national security,” he said of the challenges posed by a capable, motivated, well-resourced strategic competitor.
“We all recognize the change, but I’m afraid that to a certain degree, we are stuck in patterns of thinking, and acting, that no longer apply.” To drive home the point, he said later in the speech: “Infinite logistical capacity and freedom of movement are not guaranteed for the United States military and our government partners.”
A proper response is a multi-pronged and multi-domain one that involves all branches of the military as well as allies and partners, he said. But there is no time to waste, he added, echoing one of his constant themes since becoming the Department of the Air Force’s highest-ranking civilian leader.
“All of us involved in national security also need to develop a stronger sense of urgency, and we all must think carefully about the application of new and emerging technology to the operations we may be called upon to conduct in the not too distant future,” he said.
He also offered a blunt message to Congress about the need for replacing “legacy systems and excess capacity that has little or no relevance to the pacing challenges we face. We can protect the status quo, or we can protect America … I am very willing to work with Congress to find creative ways to move forward, but we must move forward,” he said.
At the same time, Kendall acknowledged the roots of the U.S. military’s logistics enterprise are strong. The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command “pulled off the largest airlift of people in history — 124,000 people in 17 days.” Kendall also highlighted that AMC’s former commander, Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, has recently been confirmed and sworn in as the new commander at USTRANSCOM.
But that peacetime airlift operation is a far cry from what is likely to present itself in modern-world confrontation, where sophisticated weapons are combined with refined capabilities in space and in the cyber realm across vast distances, including the Pacific. There are also more traditional and less exotic concerns.
“A few years ago on a trip to Guam, I was struck by the massive and unhardened fuel storage tanks that support Andersen Air Force Base,” he said.
“Guam isn’t unique. We also need to make plans to deal with the precision munitions that [would] be used to damage the runways our forward tactical air wings depend on, including those in places like Guam,” he said.
Kendall used a recent example and a thought exercise to illustrate the point.
“Several months ago, hackers breached the Colonial Pipeline’s networks using a compromised password,” he said. “That’s all they needed, one password. They hacked into the East Coast oil pipeline and disrupted operations for a period of days. These Russian-based hackers caused a gas shortage, high fuel prices at the pump, and cost the Colonial Pipeline almost $5 million in ransom. This is just the tip of the iceberg. If we don’t protect our data, it is wide open for our competitors to steal or manipulate and to disrupt our military operations.”
For the thought exercise, he asked the audience to envision the Battle of the Atlantic, the World War II supply effort that is among the most acclaimed and historic wartime logistics achievements.
But imagine, he said, if the Germans who were unable to stop the crucial supply chain “had a large inventory of precision land-based anti-ship and land attack cruise and ballistic missiles. Suppose that the V-1s and V-2s, introduced as terror weapons late in the war, had come along earlier and included longer ranges, precision navigation, and smart seekers,” he said.
“Suppose this mix of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles included hypersonic weapons. Imagine that those German U-boats carried over the horizon anti-ship cruise missiles. Imagine that the Germans had a robust inventory of [signals intelligence] and [imagery intelligence] satellites that could provide real-time targeting and provide that data to the Luftwaffe, the Wehrmacht, and the Kriegsmarine. German submarines would not have to guess where the convoys might be; with off-board situational awareness and targeting, they could stand well off from their targets and engage them with coordinated attacks using cruise missiles.
“Think about what these developments would have meant in the Battle of the Atlantic. It isn’t a very pretty picture,” Kendall said.
“My point in leading you through this thought experiment is to emphasize two things: First, how different our current and future challenges to logistics are compared to what we are used to or have ever experienced. And second, how significant a threat we can expect to face from today onward,” he said.
Despite the challenges and questions, Kendall said “it is clear to me that the United States can adapt in response to novel challenges, but it’s also clear to me that we can’t assume the global freedom of maneuver that we have come to expect.”
Despite the challenges and concerns, Kendall also offered a sense of hope. Most of it is rooted in the daily performance and dedication of rank-and-file Airmen and Guardians across the Air and Space Forces.
“I truly understand how difficult your jobs are in today’s environment, during a pandemic, and with significant demands and resource constraints. Despite these challenges, you are still executing your jobs and maintaining our national security posture. I am awed when I see the amazing feats our military and industry teams accomplish every day,” he said.