U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall isn’t afraid to weigh in on controversy – even when it involves the world’s richest person and a key Defense Department contractor.

Kendall made the comments Tuesday after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk admitted to withholding Starlink satellite service from Ukraine because the company was planning a surprise attack on Russian forces last year. The revelation sparked criticism of Musk, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called for an investigation into SpaceX.

The Air Force works with the company on various missions, such as national security launches, but had no role in Starlink’s deployment in Ukraine when Musk made the decision last September.

“SpaceX made some unilateral decisions back then about what to do for Ukraine. They didn’t have a contract with the U.S. … I think they essentially definitely donated their services, so they had discretion,” Kendall said in an interview with CNBC’s Morgan Brennan from the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber ​​conference .

The dynamic has changed since then. The Pentagon now has a contract with SpaceX Starlink services in Ukraine.

“We write our contracts to basically ensure that we get the services we expect from them that we need, and they are enforceable contracts regardless of the business arrangement – ​​whether it is a private company or a publicly traded company. We write agreements with them.” “Companies get us what we need at a reasonable price,” said the Air Force Minister.

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The public uproar sparked by a revelation in Walter Isaacson’s new “Elon Musk” biography added to the already simmering debate about whether the U.S. government and its allies are relying too heavily on SpaceX – and its founder in particular – on national security issues and managing directors – are dependent.

“SpaceX is a major supplier to the government’s launch services, and we buy some communications equipment, etc.,” Kendall said. “But we do that through business agreements that we can enforce.”

The military’s role in space is growing

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III testifies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on “Department of the Air Force Reviews the Fiscal Year 2024 Defense Authorization Request and the Defense Program for Future Years,” Tuesday, May 2, in the Dirksen Building. 2023.

Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

For the Air Force and the military more broadly, the revelation sheds light on a larger issue: the increasingly important role of space as a contested domain. The change required greater collaboration between the government and the growing commercial space sector.

The Air Force, the Space Force under the branch’s area of ​​responsibility and other agencies have sought to capitalize on the changing landscape. They are seeking new satellite and launch capacity, pushing for more funding for space initiatives and have at times entered into more creative contracts.

The effort has spanned multiple governments, regardless of political affiliation, as the military aims to move faster and more cost-effectively where possible.

“The military services that nations, particularly major powers, receive from space are very important to their success. That applies to us. This also applies to potential opponents,” said Kendall.

He added that the Space Force will be designed with all these aspects in mind.

Tensions with China are increasing

The potential adversary the Pentagon is most focused on – on Earth and arguably in space – is China. A possible conflict with Beijing was a major theme of the air force minister’s keynote address at the AFA conference this week.

He said China was preparing for war with the US, but added that this did not mean such a conflict was inevitable.

Kendall has been studying China’s military buildup efforts for over a decade. This buildup has raised concerns about a Chinese strategy aimed at designing a force to deter and thwart American interventions in the Western Pacific by exploiting perceived US vulnerabilities.

What would that mean if China invaded Taiwan, or perhaps the more likely possibility of a blockade? Is the US military capable of countering this if called upon?

“We do, but there are more operational risks than I would like to see. … It would be a tragic mistake, I think, if China did the kinds of things you just described, but they are actively seeking to do so defeat, and we can’t let that happen,” Kendall said.

The Air Force is looking to the future

Air Force leadership has taken steps to address next-generation technological threats. There is a list of “operational requirements” that includes everything from modernizing the airborne portion of the nuclear triad with the B-21 Raider, expected to make its first flight later this year, to a “space command.” Battle” to the development of a sixth generation fighter aircraft in the Next Generation Air Dominance competition.

The plan for NGAD also includes unmanned collaborative combat aircraft, or drones as the service calls them. The Air Force is investing billions of dollars in autonomous capabilities over the next five years because it believes the technology is mature enough and cost-effective.

Like other areas of government and the private sector, the Air Force is integrating artificial intelligence applications.

“It’s really a basket of technologies that offer a different range of capabilities. Military applications include autonomy, pattern recognition, data, analytics, etc., where some of the functions that humans would normally perform would need to be automated and performed much more quickly by AI,” Kendall said.

“We’re not talking about handing control of lethality to machines – that’s not what we have in mind,” he said. “Humans will always remain informed and responsible for all lethality decisions. But we cannot ignore this technology, it will give us a huge military advantage.”

However, much depends on the future of defense policy and financing. As has happened several times in recent years, it appears unlikely that Congress will pass a 2024 budget before the end-of-month deadline.

Analysts expect lawmakers to pass a continuing resolution (CR) that temporarily maintains the status quo on government spending. But there is also the increasing risk of a partial government shutdown or, more damaging to military modernization, the growing possibility of an expanded CR.

“That would be devastating,” Kendall said. “All CRs have very negative impacts. They are very inefficient. They delay modernization, which is very important. For example, they delay the ramp-up of programs going into production and then make it very difficult for us to plan and implement moving forward.”

Source : www.cnbc.com

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