Speaking separately at an influential gathering two blocks from the White House March 9, the Department of the Air Force’s highest-ranking civilian and military leaders offered emphatic variations on a similar theme – the need to modernize faster, think faster, and nurture the cultures needed to confront potential threats and adversaries.
“I am focused on modernization,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said during a keynote address closing the 13th Annual Defense Programs Conference staged by McAleese and Associates.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entering its third week and China’s continued military expansion and modernization, no one has to look far to understand why, he said.
“It’s still China, China, China for me,” Kendall said in outlining the challenges he’s focused on. “Russia … is a significant power to be concerned with. We’ve had a wake-up call; we’ve had an emotional event that says, ‘Yes, war at scale among great powers, among modern powers can actually happen.’ It can also happen in the Pacific.
“China has vastly more resources than Russia does and has been investing for almost 30 years to field forces that can keep the United States out of that region, (and) defeat us if we try to interfere in something they might do. So, the threats are increasing over time.”
Those realities, as well as others, including North Korea, are the catalyst for Kendall’s “Seven Operational Imperatives,” his blueprint for reshaping the Air and Space Forces to meet challenges now and in the future.
Those themes – the need for urgent change to reshape the Air and Space Forces amid China’s rise and Russia’s ambition – as well as hardening operations in space were the focus in remarks earlier in the day from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown Jr., and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond.
Kendall agreed that space is a key component. He praised Raymond for how he’s developed the Space Force but, like Raymond, said more must be done.
“We have a lot of work to do in terms of the Space Force and transitioning from a force which was designed for a period when we could operate with impunity in space. … We are starting down the path that takes us in the direction of having more resilient capabilities in space,” Kendall said.
That we have arrived at an “inflection point” in history is something Raymond and Brown in their remarks later in the day, highlighted.
“We live in a very complex, strategic security environment. Probably the most complex strategic environment that we’ve had in over three generations,” Raymond said in a morning session.
“We have some problems that we’re facing that are becoming more complex, more complicated with increasing uncertainty and will all take leadership to solve,” Brown said only hours after Raymond spoke.
The remarks from all three officials were, in large measure, echoes of comments each delivered last week at the Air Force Association’s Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida. But they also provided more detail about the plans and priorities of each service and the consequences if those goals aren’t realized.
“Space plays a crucial role in addressing these challenges because it underpins every instrument of national power: diplomatic, informational, military, and economic,” Raymond said. “A few years ago, we could assume unfettered access to space and freedom to maneuver in space. You can’t assume that anymore.”
Like Kendall, Raymond said there cannot be delay and he described how the Space Force, in its third year, is being built for speed and to ensure sustained superiority in that critical domain.
“We have to get this right, and we don’t have time to waste,” said Raymond, who has led the Space Force since it was born in December 2019.
“Our challengers are moving fast and ultimately seek to surpass the United States as the world’s leading space power. The Space Force must deliver faster than our competitors and extend our nation’s advantage in space. The competition in space over the next decade will be fierce. We can’t afford to lose,” he said.
Raymond also said the Space Force is moving aggressively to harden capabilities in space, making them more resilient instead of the vulnerable hardware that came before and was suitable to a domain that was peaceful and “benign.” Those conditions are no longer present.
“Competitors are escalating their coercive and malign activities in all domains and are imposing new transboundary challenges on the joint force,” he said. “China and Russia are demonstrating capability to contest our advantage and build capabilities that enhance their power, putting our forces at risk. Space underwrites the joint force — our joint missions don’t close without space. We can’t fight, communicate, target, precision-strike, or maneuver … without space,” he said.
“To ensure we are able to continue to offer these capabilities today and in the future, the Space Force is embarking on an unprecedented shift in our Space Force architecture,” Raymond said.
Brown made a similar point, noting that the Air Force must adroitly “balance risk” if it is to succeed in meeting today’s challenges while also shaping itself for the future.
Navigating those challenges, he said, demand the Air Force bring to life his strategic approach to transforming the service called Accelerate Change or Lose, and address what he outlined as four types of risk: “warfighting risk, which pertains to the Air Force’s rate of modernization relative to adversaries;” “foundational risk,” which includes nurturing and sustaining Airmen, ensuring readiness; “execution risk,” which is shorthand for budget and acquisition hurdles; and “industrial base risk,” which refers to the impact of budget instability on current and future companies that feed the service’s manufacturing needs.
Even though Brown spoke on the same day Congress finalized a full budget for the current fiscal year, he emphasized that delaying budgets has a direct and adverse impact on security.
“Any good strategy needs to be actionable, and it needs to be resourced. I know we’re getting close to a budget, but continuing resolutions are devastating to actually allowing us to move forward,” Brown said, using the term for a temporary budget that keeps the government from shutting down in the absence of a completed, final, full-year spending plan.
“Think about it. We’re six months into the fiscal year and we’re just now getting a budget. We’ve passed one budget in the past decade. If you line all those CRs together it’s over three years we worked without a budget. … If you’re trying to accelerate change, you can’t be spotting your adversaries three years.”
Like Brown and Raymond, Kendall noted the dangers of delayed annual budgets, warning that they hamper modernization at a time when adversaries are closing the gap that in the past separated the U.S. and its capabilities from their own.
“We have a narrow window of opportunity to modernize our force and realize the change that is required to defend our homeland. Time truly is of the essence,” he said.
“Continued investment in new capabilities ensures the nation has the cutting edge technology needed to remain competitive and stay ahead of our adversaries,” Kendall said. “While divesting legacy and aging platforms is a necessary first step, this alone will not free the resources (the Department of the Air Force) requires to modernize. Significant additional resources are required to attain the (forces) the nation needs for the future.”
Brown explained what that means in the real world and why the U.S. must increase its pace.
“Since Desert Storm (in 1991), the Air Force is now half the size and the average age of our fleet has tripled,” he said. “By comparison, since the 1990s, (China’s) Air Force has modernized their fighter fleet, increased their flight hours by over 60%. … Our rate of modernization has not kept pace with our adversaries.”
“The future Air Force must be resourced appropriately so we can prevail in a future conflict. We must fund the transition of the Air Force today to the Air Force we’ll need for tomorrow,” he said.