With his West Point pedigree and nearly five decades serving in active duty, the upper reaches of the Department of Defense, and assorted national security endeavors, Frank Kendall had a highly refined idea for what he would face when took his seat as Air Force secretary in 2021.
Now, after one full year on the job, Kendall’s assessment of what his leadership has brought (and what it hasn’t), and how that has shaped the Air Force and Space Force to better address the global threats facing the United States, is generally positive.
“I’m reasonably comfortable with where we’ve come in the last year,” Kendall said in recent interview that ranged across a broad number of topics relating to how he has performed in the last year and how that translates to where the Air Force and Space Force are headed.
But with his experience and knowledge, Kendall quickly offered some well-informed nuance.
“I think now there’s, if not quite a consensus, at least close to it in terms of the direction of change that we need,” he said. “So that’s all positive. Now it’s going to be up to us to execute.”
He also offered a blunt assessment of the stakes confronting not just him but the entire Total Force and the nation and why the challenge from China must be understood and met without delay.
“I regard the current situation (posed by China) as more stressing than the one I experienced for 20 years during the Cold War,” Kendall said, offering an assessment that is all the more remarkable given his habit of being understated and for carefully choosing his words.
Today, with the emergence of China, “We have a well-resourced, strategic, innovative competitor who is trying to defeat not just our current capabilities but thinking ahead to the capabilities that we’re going to field and already started down the road of developing capabilities to counter those,” he said.
“It’s a game of chess in which we have to think a few moves ahead and we have to take action. … Our ability to sustain deterrence depends upon our success doing that. And I think this is a greater challenge even than the ones that I faced and was part of during the Cold War.”
That, more than anything, explains perhaps Kendall’s clarion call during his first year as secretary – seven Operational Imperatives is the blueprint he developed for rapidly changing the hardware, policies and cultures of the Air and Space Forces to better position them to confront current and emerging threats. The Operational Imperatives are the tool by which Kendall hopes to reshape and refocus the services to contest, and if necessary, defeat China and other near-peer powers.
On more than one occasion over the last year, Kendall acknowledged that the Air Force is working to close a capability gap and that being forced to carry older, less capable equipment is slowing progress at a time when time is short.
That reality is the reason that the Air and Space Forces must transform, and fast, Kendall emphasized nearly every day, pointing out urgency is needed, and the Joint Force must become more seamless.
That is one reason the first of the seven imperatives is focused on space. On that front, Kendall said frequently in public appearances that the Space Force “is developing a resilient force design to modernize and deliver new capabilities at operationally relevant speeds” in a once “benign” domain that is now a highly contested area.
He endorsed the military-wide push toward a new generation of joint operation known as Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, but with a caveat. The Air Force’s contribution to the larger effort, known as the Advanced Battle Management System, is showing promise, Kendall said. However, the “deliverable” must be “identifying the tangible benefits we need to get into the hands of warfighters to make an operational impact.”
That focus is another common refrain for Kendall, based largely on his role as high-ranking procurement officer in the Department of Defense during the Obama administration. Pilot programs, vague prototypes and good ideas without a strong basis for an actual product at the end are a constant target for Kendall. Those efforts, he said, will end up in the valley of death at a time when combatant commanders need actual equipment and practices that are ready to be used in the field.
“We have plenty of risk to manage in the portfolio that we have today,” Kendall said. “But what I’m focused on more than anything else is ensuring that our programs are structured and resourced to get real capability into the field, to get meaningful operational capability into the hands of our operators as quickly as possible.”
There remain other thorny problems too, Kendall said. They include traditional ones such as retention and quality of life, determining the correct mix of “capability versus capacity” and surprises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the bumpy withdraw from Afghanistan, the continued stubborn presence of COVID-19, and coping with the financial fallout of unexpected inflation.
But across his first year, Kendall said even with those big, unanticipated issues, he is satisfied with how the year was navigated.
As for the Total Force, Kendall, the former Army officer, is impressed.
“I’m delighted with the capabilities and the talent and the sense of mission that I encounter everywhere I go in the Air Force and the Space Force,” he said. “These are people who are dedicated to serving their country; they work tirelessly, have an enormous amount of capability, and they serve the country very well every day.”
Kendall said he is comfortable with the budget proposed for the next fiscal year, for instance, and more importantly, that Congress has generally embraced the reasons driving the request even if they have questions about some line items. He is pleased with the continued growth of the fledgling Space Force and with the leadership of Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond.
The same is true for Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles CQ Brown, Jr. and Gina Ortiz Jones, the department’s under secretary, Kendall said.
“It’s been just a delightful experience to have such a cohesive senior leadership team to work with,” he said. “From day one, that’s been very positive, and I think it’s allowed me to do a lot of things from my perspective over the last year that have moved the Air Force and the Space Force both forward and in the direction we need to go.”
He has been heartened by the way the Total Force has embraced his, “One Team, One Fight” credo.
Those realities provide the foundation for progress on what Kendall says is the most important – and urgent – priority, his Seven Operational Imperatives.
“That list of seven Operational Imperatives has been how I focused effort within the Department of the Air Force to identify the things that we need to do to stay ahead of the threat,” he said.
The purpose is twofold, Kendall said. First, is articulating goals and tasks that are specific enough to generate actual results and, in Kendall’s words, “put capability directly into the hands of warfighters.”
The second, and according to Kendall, more important, is to instill a sense of urgency.
“One of things that I’ve said over the past year is that if there were one thing I could do, it would be to inculcate everyone involved a sense of urgency about getting on with things and moving forward,” he said.
“I still feel that way. I think that’s something of a cultural change, which is still in progress. I think we’ve made a lot of progress on that, but I’m not sure that everybody appreciates the need for that sense of urgency and how important that is.”