COLORADO SPRINGS — Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall earlier this month submitted a legislative proposal to allow selected programs in the Pentagon’s budget to get started before Congress passes the final appropriations bill. 

Speaking April 19 at the Space Symposium, Kendall said it is “troubling” that the U.S. Air Force and Space Force have not been able to start critical programs to compete with China because of the lagging budget process. 

“Our posture now is that we’re waiting for the Congress,” Kendall said. 

‘Operational imperatives’

Since taking office two years ago, Kendall has warned about China’s advances in military and space technologies and the possibility that they could surpass the United States. In a list of “operational imperatives” for the 2024 budget Kendall called for investments in areas like hypersonic weapons, autonomous aircraft, cybersecurity and resilient satellite constellations.

Kendall said the Department of the Air Force nearly two years ago completed the analysis to justify funding in the 2024 defense budget for at least 20 new programs. But none of those projects can start until Congress passes a spending bill, which is not likely to happen for several months. 

In the meantime, “we’re in waiting mode,” he said. “We’re waiting for Congress to authorize new starts and appropriate funding.” 

The priority programs Kendall wants to start or accelerate — including new missile-warning satellites, remote sensing satellites to track moving targets and hypersonic vehicles —  are on hold for several months or even a full year if there’s gridlock and the government is funded by temporary measures. Under continuing resolution funding, new programs can’t be started. 

Kendall’s legislative proposal — which was approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget before it was submitted to Congress April 12 — would allow these programs to start before funding is fully appropriated. “This would not be very expensive,” he said. It would allow the Air Force and Space Force to get a head start.

“Hopefully Congress will approve this,” Kendall said. 

The legislative proposal “gives the department some authority to initiate a program, if we are surprised technologically, without waiting for congressional approval,” he said. “This is a limited authority that would allow us to go through the preliminary design review phase to design, do performance trade offs, systems engineering, maybe do some risk reduction.”

This will require some flexibility on the part of the Congress, he noted. “I’ve tried to bring a great sense of urgency to the department. I think I’ve succeeded in that. I think we’ve got people mobilized, if you will, to respond to the challenges that we face. Now we need to move forward as quickly as possible.”

 “It’s a minimum amount of authority Congress has to give up for a big return,” Kendall said. 

War with China a risk 

Shaping these discussions is the possibility of a military conflict with China, which Kendall said is not “inevitable” and would likely not start intentionally. “But it’s not impossible,” he said. “The danger is increasing over time.”

A “miscalculation” in space could escalate to a broader conflict, he said. 

“China views space as an operational domain where it wants to dominate,” said Kendall. It is developing terrestrial and orbital anti-satellite weapons and is not concerned about creating debris or whether they lead to strategic instability, he added.

“China’s lack of concern about space norms is worrisome and creates a risk of miscalculation,” Kendall said. 

This is a troubling scenario because a war that extends into space is uncharted territory, said Kendall. “If deterrence fails we will all have a lot to learn.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...