In remarks at the National Press Club April 19, 2022, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall highlighted a message he’ll deliver to Congress beginning next week, that the Air and Space Forces are facing “hard choices” necessary to quicken the pace of change to “transform” and modernize the services to meet challenges from China.
In an appearance focused on the Department of the Air Force’s recently submitted $194 billion budget request for fiscal year 2023, Kendall acknowledged that the Air and Space Forces must modernize faster while also making a cultural shift in the face of competition from China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.
The budget request, he said, “is an appropriate balance between immediate or near-term capabilities and investments in the future. Those investments in the future are designed to transform the Department of the Air Force. Transformations are not cheap, but the threat is increasing over time; so we have to make some hard choices [and] I want to make sure people are prepared.”
Kendall said he is comfortable that the budget proposal makes the proper investments in the nation’s nuclear deterrent by fully funding the transition to the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as continued development of the B-21 Raider strike bomber and the Long Range Standoff weapon.
On the conventional side, however, Kendall said more work must be done, and fast, since China has been closely studying the United States for the last 30 years.
“The budget has a number of initiatives to better define that path and those needs,” he said. “Hard choices are ahead. We do increase our research and development account by a substantial amount, and that’s a down payment on future capabilities.”
And to remove any doubt, Kendall quickly answered his own question about the logic driving his push to modernize and add a new mix of capabilities and operational doctrine.
“The U.S. bases its policies on the ability to deter aggression far away from the United States. China learned from that. One of the things they learned are the things we are dependent upon to project power and that’s a small number of high value assets. And they built the systems to attack those assets.”
The best counter to that trend for the Department of the Air Force, Kendall said, is embodied in what he calls his “Seven Operational Imperatives,” categories and concepts that “are organizing our work.”
In broad strokes, the seven imperatives begin with ensuring that the U.S. and its allies have freedom to operate in space. That means modernizing satellites, adding defense in depth and finding ways to better protect a network of satellites and related equipment that form the irreplaceable backbone of everyday communication (including for the military and for weapons targeting and identification) as well as global commerce, navigation and crucial early warning systems.
The importance of space in everyday life today is the reason the U.S. Space Force was created. In military terms, “Space Force is the great enabler. It also is the great protector; it protects the rest of the joint force, and it protects them particularly from targeting,” Kendall said.
Another imperative is improving the way vast information is collected, analyzed, fused and distributed. That effort in the Department of Defense is known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control and for the Department of the Air Force’s portion of the effort, Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS.
Linked to the need to share data quickly is another imperative focused on identifying and tracking numerous potential targets simultaneously; both stationary targets and, more importantly, mobile threats, Kendall added.
A prime recipient of that information is the fleet of tactical aircraft, and the newest component of it known as NGAD, or Next Generation Air Dominance, which is another imperative. Essentially it means a new fighter aircraft but, Kendall said, the new approach would possibly augment a piloted craft with a network of uncrewed craft.
NGAD is similar to another imperative that features the B-21 long range bomber and its “family” of support systems and in-flight “partners” that also included crewed aircraft and uncrewed.
Kendall identified another imperative as updating the traditional approach to basing so that operations traditionally conducted from large, easily identified air bases could be shifted to smaller, more nimble bases that could be established in or near “hostile” areas. That concept is known within the Air Force as Agile Combat Employment, or ACE.
The final imperative centers on logistics, being able to get personnel and equipment where it’s needed with as little friction and uncertainty as possible. That effort is expansive, including airlift as well as cyber security, ensuring medical support, Airmen and Guardian retention, and better “synergy” with the joint force and allies.
“That’s where the transformation will come from and it’s a pretty expensive list,” Kendall said after itemizing all seven imperatives.
Getting there requires innovation and ruthlessly combatting bulky bureaucracy. On that front, Kendall’s attitude is well known. He recounted a recent meeting in which he was told that a program requires “a 21-month study.”
“My reaction was that’s unacceptable. We cannot move at the speed of bureaucracy. We have to move at the speed dictated by the speed of operational realities,” he said.
He also asked for Congress’s help, especially when it comes to allowing the Air Force to thin aging aircraft. Currently, the average age of the fleet is 30 years. “Who do you know who has a 30-year-old car?” Kendall asked.
“We need the cooperation of Congress,” to succeed, Kendall said. “In identifying the things that ensure the future and provide [for] the defense of the country and the things we really need; one of them isn’t hanging on to old airplanes.”
In closing, Kendall offered a personal aside to explain his urgent nature and also his, at times, unvarnished assessments.
“I think I have a different perspective than a lot of people. I spent 20 years as a Cold Warrior. I graduated from West Point in 1971 and spent the next 20 years working in some facet of national security in uniform and as a civilian. I know what it’s like to have a peer competitor who’s actively trying to defeat you. Most people in uniform today don’t have that experience,” he said.
“It gives you a different mindset. If there’s one thing I want to inculcate in the Department of the Air Force, it’s a sense of urgency. We have to move forward. We can’t stand still. We have a capable adversary who’s studying us every day. They will move forward. They’ve shown the ability to be strategic in their investments; they’ve shown the ability to be strategic in the type of force they create.
“We have to be willing to do the same. I’m confident that if we do, we will prevail,” he said.