As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold, the situation is uncovering key insights into what the future of warfare might look like. Namely, the issue of contested logistics — in other words, sustaining military operations in contested or hostile environments — has come to the fore as a major area of focus for U.S. military leaders like Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.
Kendall, a 2023 Wash100 Award winner, told an audience at the Potomac Officers Club’s 2023 Air Force Summit in McLean, Virginia that the Air Force is exploring the changes that must be made as contested logistics become increasingly important to military preparedness and the country’s ability to project power in a changing global landscape.
“For a long time we’ve been able to move forces forward and project power with impunity,” he shared. “That’s gone.”
Throughout Kendall’s two years as Air Force Secretary, he has made clear that “China, China, China” is his top priority and our country’s greatest pacing challenge in the peer and near-peer competition era. As competition intensifies, Kendall is looking at systems, ports and assets that could be targeted in a potential conflict and thinking about how to protect them should a situation arise.
“When you look at the operational problem in the Western Pacific from the point of view of China, you see right away that there are a handful of seaports and air ports, a handful of communications and logistics nodes, as well as a handful of satellites and of course, aircraft carriers and tactical Air Force bases that you can target,” Kendall explained. “So we have got to get used to the idea of operating under fire effectively. And we haven’t had to do that for a very long time.”
“We are looking at some interesting concepts for how we’re going to do that with some new technologies. I think it’s going to take some force structure changes and some operating concept changes. So we haven’t fully thought through yet. We’ve begun that journey, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said Kendall.
Learn more about how the country is prioritizing contested logistics — join the Potomac Officers Club’s Preparing for the Contested Logistics Era Forum on Sep. 14. Maj. Gen. Laura Lenderman, director of operations and plans for the U.S. Transportation Command, is slated to keynote. Register here.
In the meantime, as the Air Force works through what contested logistics will mean for the service, Kendall is prioritizing a legislative proposal that could speed up key programs that are deemed critical to national security missions. Under the current authorization and appropriation system, programs can see delays averaging a year and a half before work can begin, and even longer under continuing resolutions, or CRs.
“What we’ve asked for is a quick start authorization, where in selecting cases where you’re very motivated by the threat or you have a great technological opportunity, you can start the early phases of a program and move forward to the level of preliminary design review, the earliest major milestone in the program,” Kendall shared.
Kendall said he’s still “very hopeful” the quick start proposal will be enacted in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.
“We literally do not have a moment to lose in this race for military technological superiority that we’re in,” urged Kendall.
Beyond the quick start proposal, Kendall is very focused on budgets for 2024 and 2025, and he has made clear that regardless of funding levels, the programs that are most important to the China challenge and other national security missions will continue to be prioritized.
“My big concern in 25 is that we have capped defense at a level which is going to make it very difficult to continue the things we started in 24 at the pace that we need to continue them at. We’re going to protect those things. They’re going to be our highest priority. So those programs, we’re not going to go backwards on, but we may not be able to go forward as fast as I would like,” Kendall said.
The 2023 Air Force Summit is part of the Potomac Officers Club’s annual event series focused on the country’s military service branches. Join POC for the last installment of this year’s series, the 8th Annual Air Force Summit on Aug. 1. Hon. Gabe Camarillo, Hon. Doug Bush and William Nelson headline this can’t-miss Army event. Register here to save your seat while space is still available.