USA Air Force chief Secretary Frank Kendall, the paceX founder Elon Musk’s refusal to allow Ukraine to use Starlink internet services to launch a surprise attack on Russian forces in Crimea last September has prompted some to question whether the U.S. military should be more explicit in future contracts that the services or goods it purchases could be used in combat.
Excerpts from a brand-new biography of Musk that The Washington Post published last week showed that the Ukrainians had requested the Starlink’s assistance in September 2022 in order to assault Russian navy vessels stationed at the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Musk had declined because of fear that Russia might retaliate with a nuclear assault.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and claims it as its territory.When Musk declined the Crimea request, he was not working on a military contract; instead, he had been giving free terminals to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion in February 2022. The U.S. military has supported and formally contracted with Starlink for ongoing support, though, in the intervening months. Invoking operational security, the Pentagon has kept the specifics of the contract’s terms and price confidential.
Frank Kendall, the secretary of the U.S. Air Force, is not afraid to weigh in on hot-button issues, even when they include the richest man in the world and a significant Department of Defense contractor.
After Elon Musk confessed delaying Starlink satellite service from Ukraine as it prepared a surprise strike on Russian forces last year, Kendall weighed in on the matter on Tuesday. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) demanded an investigation of SpaceX after the revelation led to criticism of Musk.
While the Air Force collaborates with the firm on a number of projects, including as national security launches, it had no influence on Musk’s choice to deploy Starlink in Ukraine last September.
“At the time, SpaceX made some judgments regarding what to do for Ukraine on its own. They had no deal with the United States. They had discretion because, in my opinion, they were practically donating their skills.
At the annual Air, Space & Cyber conference of the Air Force Association, Kendall spoke with Morgan Brennan for CNBC.
Since then, the dynamic has altered. Starlink services in Ukraine are now provided by SpaceX under a contract with the Pentagon.
“We write our contracts essentially to make sure we can obtain the services we require, as expected from them, and those are enforceable contracts, whatever the corporate organization may be – whether it’s individual ownership or a publicly traded firm. The Air Force secretary added, “We negotiate agreements with those companies, and they provide us with what we need at a fair price.
The public outcry, which was brought on by a discovery in Walter Isaacson’s new “Elon Musk” book, fueled a debate that had already begun about whether the United States government and its allies were depending too much on SpaceX, and notably its creator and CEO, for national security issues.
According to Kendall, “SpaceX is an important supplier to the government launch services, and we do purchase some communications, etc.” But we achieve that through contracts with third parties that we can enforce.
The military plays a bigger part in space
The revelation sheds light on a larger subject for the Air Force and the military in general: the increasingly important role of space as a contested domain. More cooperation between the government and the expanding commercial space industry is now necessary as a result of the transition.
The Air Force, the Space Force under the control of the branch, and other organizations have tried to take advantage of the shifting environment. They have lobbied for increased financing for space endeavors, are looking for new satellite and launch capabilities, and occasionally construct more inventive contracts.
Regardless of political allegiance, the initiative has spanned several administrations as the military strives to move as rapidly and inexpensively as feasible.
“The military support that countries, and especially great powers, receive from space is crucial to their success. For us, that is true. For potential foes, it holds true, said Kendall.
The Space Force is being created with all of this in mind, he continued.
Rising hostilities with China
China is the potential foe that the Pentagon is most concerned with thwarting, both on Earth and arguably in space. The keynote address by the Air Force secretary at the AFA conference this week focused heavily on a potential clash with Beijing.
He claimed that although China is prepared for war with the United States, a conflict is not unavoidable.
For more than a decade, Kendall has researched China’s military modernization initiatives. He said it has sparked worries about a Chinese plan to create a force to thwart American engagement in the Western Pacific by preying on imagined U.S. weaknesses.
What would that entail in the event that China invades Taiwan or, perhaps more likely, imposes a blockade? Is the American military prepared to combat that if necessary?
We are, but I would prefer to see less operational hazards than there are. We can’t let that happen because China is deliberately working to develop the capacity to be effective against us and, if possible, to defeat us. I believe it would be a fatal error if they were to act in the manner you just stated.
The Air Force considers the future
The Air Force’s top brass has been making preparations to fend against emerging technological threats. Its “operational imperatives” cover a wide range of topics, including the development of a sixth-generation fighter jet for the Next Generation Air Dominance competition, modernization of the air-based leg of the nuclear triad, which the B-21 Raider is expected to complete later this year, a “space order-of-battle,” and more.
Drones, or unmanned collaborative combat aircraft, are another component of the NGAD strategy. The Air Force will spend billions of dollars developing autonomous capabilities over the next five years because they think the technology is ready and practical.
The Air Force is using artificial intelligence applications, just as other facets of the public and private sectors.
It’s essentially a collection of technologies with a variety of capabilities. Autonomy, pattern recognition, data analytics, and other topics are used in military applications, and some tasks that would often be handled by humans are automated and completed considerably more rapidly and accurately by artificial intelligence, according to Kendall.
He stated, “That is not what we have in mind. We are not talking about handing control of lethality to computers. Lethality judgments will always be made with humans in mind and under their control. However, we cannot disregard this technology because it will provide us a significant military edge.
But the future of defense financing and strategy is so crucial. Congress looks unlikely to pass the fiscal 2024 budget before the end of the month deadline, as has occurred numerous times in recent years.
Analysts anticipate that Congress will approve a continuing resolution (CR) that temporarily keeps government spending at the current level. Nevertheless, there is also the growing probability of a lengthy CR, which would be considerably more harmful to military development.
“That would be devastating,” added Kendall. “Every CRS has a very detrimental effect. They perform terribly. They postpone modernization, which is crucial. For instance, they delay program increases that are about to go into production, which makes it very challenging for us to prepare.