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Kendall outlines progress on ‘transformation’ tempered by continuing threats, need for ‘urgency’

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Offering a report card on the state of transformation across the Air and Space Forces, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said June 24 that progress has been made but more is needed, and the pace of change must quicken to reshape and refocus the services to meet fast evolving global threats.

Appearing at a “fireside chat” sponsored by the Air Force Association, Kendall pointed to Ukraine to dismiss doubts about the threats and dangers in the world today while also emphasizing that China poses an even more significant security challenge.

“We have had the lesson of Ukraine in the last few months that has demonstrated that aggression by major powers against lesser powers does occur,” Kendall said. “It can occur very quickly and very violently. If we are to deter that we have to have the capabilities to defeat that kind of threat.”

While the world is focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kendall said that for the Air and Space Forces the bigger challenge is China and that reshaping the services to better address that reality is a major goal.

China, he said, “has figured out what we depend upon to project power. On that are a relatively small number of high value targets – aircraft carriers, forward bases and satellites as well as command and control nodes and logistics centers. They have built a large arsenal of conventional precision munitions … to attack those assets. … They’re doing that to intimidate us and make it difficult for us to project power.

“We have to reorient ourselves and develop a sense of urgency about out-thinking, out-spending, out-smarting a very capable adversary,” Kendall said, offering a slight variation on a theme he has aggressively voiced since becoming the department’s highest ranking civilian leader nearly a year ago.

He also offered a blunt assessment.

“I don’t want to understate or undersell the capabilities the United States has,” Kendall said. “We are a very formidable military power, and it would be a grave mistake for anybody, including China, to try and take the United States on. We have a lot of capability we can bring to bear and we have a very professional, very well-trained military. That’s unlike the one we just saw demonstrated by Russia.

“I’m not suggesting we’re at any kind of grave risk right now. I am concerned about these developments, however, and what they portend,” he said, referring to China’s actions to expand and modernize its own military.

Facing that reality, Kendall said for the U.S. to maintain the nation’s security and historical advantage, the Air and Space Forces must change and refocus. The path to achieving that is embodied in his seven Operational Imperatives, 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 first of the seven imperatives focuses on space. On that front, Kendall said, 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 contested environment.

For the most part Kendall said he is pleased with the progress and expects additional advances to come as a result of the fiscal year 2023 budget. Maintaining progress and momentum, however, is not guaranteed.

“We have a reasonable balance. We are meeting the needs of combatant commanders today and we are making reasonable investments for our future. I was quite comfortable defending the budget that I presented but I also put a warning note on the table that FY 24 was going to require some hard choices.

At the same time, Kendall repeated one of his most common refrains – the services must move fast. 

“Our most precious resource is time. We cannot get it back if we lose it,” he said.  

While candidly describing the challenges the services are facing, he also pointed out examples where progress has been made. 

He highlighted gains made in space by the U.S. Space Force and expressed general comfort with the always difficult effort to balance existing “capacity” and “capability.” That balance has been struck while keeping room in the budget to modernize to address threats that are likely to emerge decades in the future. 

He noted that the F-35 Lightning II remains the cornerstone of the future fighter fleet and characterized the larger, department-wide strategy as developing tools, practices and capabilities that, taken together, are sufficient to offset capabilities from China.  

“I’m all about real capability and getting real capability in the hands of warfighters are quickly as possible,” he said. 

At the same time, he acknowledged that the Air Force today 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, he said, adding it is the reason he continues to reinforce a sense of urgency. 

He endorsed the military-wide push toward a new generation of joint operation known as Joint All Domain Command and Control 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.” 

In all respects, he said, “We need to move fast but in the right direction.” That is especially true in the decision and development surrounding the so-called Next Generation Air Dominance package. Unlike previous upgrades that focused heavily on state-of-the-art fighters, this new version would include crewed and un-crewed aircraft, space and cyber assets and information technology that amplifies capabilities and dilemmas for adversaries. 

“Our system-of-systems approach to the future of air dominance goes beyond buying the next aircraft to complement our other fighters or bombers in our inventory. It’s about building the full family of innovative platforms and systems,” he said. 

The efforts, as embodied in his Operational Imperatives, include advances in readiness and how the force is based. One major effort is Agile Combat Employment, which relies on a network of smaller, more nimble and self-sustaining bases that are connected to traditional, large installations in a hub-and-spoke arrangement. 

“Agile Combat Employment addresses today’s changing threat environment, which no longer allows the Air Force to treat overseas bases as sanctuaries,” he said.