Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall speaks Nov. 13, 2023, at the Center for a New American Security. Credit: CNAS livestream

WASHINGTON — Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall issued a stark warning Nov. 13 about the impact of funding delays and continuing threats of government shutdowns.

Current temporary funding runs out Nov. 17. To avert a government shutdown, lawmakers are scrambling to extend funding for some agencies perhaps until January, and others until February. This uncertainty means dozens of Air Force and Space Force programs that should be gearing up for production will stall due to lack of predictable funding, Kendall said at a Center for a New American Security forum.

The Department of the Air Force in its 2024 budget is seeking billions of dollars for next-generation technologies such as hypersonic weapons, a new intercontinental ballistic missile and modern satellite networks. The absence of both a budget agreement and a defense authorization bill “brings programs to a screeching halt,” said Kendall, noting that this comes at a time when the U.S. faces growing strategic competition from China and Russia.

“There are about a dozen or more new starts, things that we need congressional authorization to start,” he said. “So not having an authorization bill yet, not having an appropriations bill, this means we have to wait until those things are passed to begin.”

The time that the Air Force and the Space Force spend waiting for funding, “is time we’re ceding to China,” Kendall added. “They are in a race for military technological superiority. There’s no question about that. And they’re moving forward very quickly.”

“We need to move quickly, and giving away time that we could use doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “Think of it this way, if you’re doing a race that’s a mile long, we’re essentially giving away a quarter mile headstart to the other side.”

The new normal

During a question-and-answer session, CNAS senior fellow and defense programs director Stacie Pettyjohn noted that short-term funding bills, or continuing resolutions, have become the new normal, and asked Kendall to explain why the military services have such a difficult time coping with the disruption.

The main reason is that new programs can’t be started under CRs, said Kendall, but more importantly is that “it’s a criminal act to spend money you don’t have from the Congress, so we can’t spend money we don’t have yet.” 

“The implications are widespread,” Kendall added. CR’s only allow the government to spend at the previous year’s levels. In the case of the Air Force and the Space Force, specific increases were requested for several programs, and under a CR “you basically can’t increase funding on things that you would plan to increase money on, and you can’t ramp up production rates,” he added. “So that has a big impact. You can’t hire people. You can’t put contracts in place and if you do, you have a limited scope of work in the case of production programs. So it just holds us back. It’s like an anchor keeping us from moving forward.”

Kendall said he’s discussed the situation with congressional defense committees, which understand the urgency of the Department of the Air Force’s modernization investments and have been supportive. But the problem with funding bills is at the congressional leadership level, where both sides are entrenched and unable to make progress on a budget deal. 

He pushed back against claims that the military has large budgets and nevertheless has been slow to adopt cutting-edge technology. “We don’t have an innovation problem. We have a money problem,” he said. The Air Force and Space Force know what technologies and systems they need to move forward, Kendall insisted, but can’t execute on any of it without sufficient, consistent funding.

The Air Force has a track record of starting too many programs it can’t fund, and Kendall has been trying to rein that in. “We have a tendency in the last few years at least, to have started too many projects we can’t afford. We need to be more focused and more disciplined about starting things that we really do intend to take into production.”

“We’re well aware of what’s happening in the commercial world, and very prepared to take advantage of that, particularly in areas like space,” he said. “But what we really need is the resources to move forward.”

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...