News | Sept. 20, 2021

Kendall presents unsparing blueprint for confronting China, other threats

By Charles Pope Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall offered a blunt and unsparing blueprint Sept. 20 for the Air and Space Forces, Congress and others to follow if they are to meet—and overcome—challenges to the nation’s security posed by China and others.

Time is short, he said in a 30 minute, closely-watched address to the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, & Cyber Conference and the challenges are large. That combination requires a cultural and operational reset across the Air and Space Forces as well as with industry, Congress, allies and other partners.

“While America is still the dominant military power on the planet today, we are being more effectively challenged militarily than at any—any—other time in our history,” he said.

If there was any confusion about the most pressing security concern, Kendall quickly made it clear. “So what are my intentions now that I have this job? At a breakfast on Capitol Hill shortly after I was sworn in, I was asked by Sen. Jon Tester what my priorities were. My answer was that I had three; China, China, and China.”

In all, Kendall mentioned “China” 27 times in the speech compared to a single mention of Russia and Afghanistan three times.

A West Point graduate with more than 50 years’ service as an Army officer, a senior defense official in the Obama administration and with defense contractors, Kendall said he circled back to public service largely because of China’s emergence. He recognized that development in 2010 and briefed then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice and other senior officials on China’s capabilities.

Since becoming Air Force secretary in July, Kendall stated, “I have had the opportunity to catch up on the intelligence about China’s modernization programs. If anything, China has accelerated its pace of modernization, and taken it in some disturbing directions,” he said.

While the proper response is multi-layered, including new technologies, tactics and equipment, such as the B-21 Raider, as well as cultural changes within the services, Kendall said his overarching organizing principle is found in four words: “One team, one fight.”

That principle, he said, embodies more than simply shared purpose and effort across the Air and Space Forces. It includes locking arms with other services to perfect multi-domain operations and with industry to develop and produce new equipment that maintains the crucial advantages historically enjoyed by the U.S. and its allies.

Kendall told the audience, which included several thousand active-duty personnel, staffers from Congress and the administration, as well as those from the defense industry, that recent history provides a telling example of the consequence in failing to have a “one team” approach.

“There is a lesson from the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban that we as Americans, and we as Airmen and Guardians, should not miss,” Kendall said. “Historians and policy analysts will be trying to sort out what happened and why, after 20 years of American and allied support, the Afghan government fell so quickly.

One thing, however, is painfully clear: The Afghan government and military were not ‘one team’ engaged in ‘one fight.’ Even when faced with an existential threat to their freedom, they could not overcome their internal divisions and unite against a common enemy. As a direct result, the people of Afghanistan have lost their freedom.”

In presenting his perspectives for managing the needs and wants of a service with nearly 700,000 Airmen, Guardians and civilians, a $168 billion budget and for confronting an array of complicated threats, Kendall presented an “inside and outside” strategy. Each part was tailored to confronting China’s emergence from a regional threat to a more global concern.

Kendall endorsed the aggressive push for speed and nimble, innovative operations by Air Force Chief of Staff
Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., saying, “I resonate completely” with Brown’s “Accelerate, Change or Lose” mandate.

He similarly embraced the Space Force’s focus and direction as articulated by Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond. Raymond, he said, has presented “a clear list of five priorities for the Space Force, with which I am in full agreement.”

But Kendall offered a footnote too.

“To be stronger, we are going to have to change. … We have to respond with a sense of urgency, but we also have to take the time necessary to make smart choices about our future and our investments,” he said.

“To get change right, we must improve our ability to analyze and understand the operational possibilities that technology is providing. We must be open-minded and objective about the operational doors that technologies like autonomy, artificial intelligence, and data analytics can open for us,” he said.

And because time is short and the challenges are large, Kendall named names to underscore his point.

“We should not be doing demonstrations and experiments unless we can link them to true operational improvements and unless they move us down the field to lower-risk acquisition programs,” he said. “I intend to strengthen these linkages and to use state-of-the-art analytical tools to do so.

A case in point is the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, the Air Force’s component of Joint All Domain Command and Control. “My early observation is that this program has not been adequately focused on achieving and fielding specific measurable improvements in operational outcomes.

To achieve effective change, we must also keep our eye on the ball. For me, that means focusing on the fielding of meaningful military capability into the hands of our operational users. It does not mean one or two leave-behind unmaintainable token prototypes that came out of an experiment,” he said.

Kendall also told Congress that, while the support it provides remains crucial and is appreciated, adjustments are necessary since time is short, money—as always—is limited, and the challenge presented by China continues to grow. “That means,” he said, “that the Air Force must be allowed to have a mix of aircraft, systems and capabilities that maximize the ability to carry out any mission, anywhere, anytime. The service cannot afford to carry older and less capable equipment.

To be stronger we are going to have to change. Our strategic competitors have studied how we fight and they have taken asymmetric steps to exploit our vulnerabilities and to defeat us. We have to respond with a sense of urgency, but we also have to take the time necessary to make smart choices about our future and our investments,” he said.

Kendall noted too that success in confronting China and addressing other security challenges demands that the Air and Space Forces address lingering internal problems such as those involving
diversity, sexual assault and harassment.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the people who are currently serving in the Air and Space Forces, not just as Department Secretary, but as an American citizen,” he said, adding that he was “an awed observer” of the Air Force’s performance evacuating people from Afghanistan.

“I intend to be relentless in supporting our Airmen and Guardians and in seeing that they have what they need to be successful. I’m also aware, however, that we have some areas where change is needed here as well.

…The data is very clear that we are not doing as well as we should be in ensuring that every Airman and Guardian has the opportunity to achieve their full potential and contribute to the extent of their ability to our shared missions. There is significant disparity in almost every aspect of the Air Force experience between the outcomes and the perceptions in areas such as promotions, law enforcement, sexual harassment, and assignments between members of less well represented groups and the white male majority. One notable perception gap is between a majority that generally thinks things are basically fine, and everyone else where there is a strong perception that it is not all fine,” he said.

“My intent is to actively address each of these issues. There are some programs already ongoing in each of these areas.  The Department has not ignored them by any means, but I believe we can do better,” he said.