It was airpower that kicked in the door to Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and it was airpower that closed out the campaign 20 years later these past few weeks. The unwinnable “forever war” in between wore the wings off Air Force fighters and bombers and left the force much worse for wear.
Yet the end of America’s Afghanistan chapter represents a historic opportunity for the Air Force. Unburdened of that drag on people, equipment, operations, and misplaced investment, the Air Force can finally rally to its Chief’s call and “accelerate change.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s appeal to “accelerate change or lose” was never just about reinvestment. He’s sought as much to break down barriers to change as to move faster to a future end state. It wasn’t that the Air Force was on the wrong track before, Brown has said, but that it lacked sufficient urgency.
Restoring the Air Force and enabling the Space Force are joint responsibilities
That urgency is driven by China’s aggressive actions in the Pacific and informed by Brown’s recent experience as commander of Pacific Air Forces. Agile Combat Employment, which came about during his tenure there, embodies his philosophy. “When I travel,” he said in an August interview, “what I usually get is, ‘I can’t do this until I have more Airmen or X more dollars.’ And I go: ‘What if I gave you nothing—but the authority to do something different?’ … How would you effectively create more manpower resources?”
ACE empowers Airmen and unit leaders to decipher new ways to deploy with fewer resources, which in turn primes the pump for innovating at home. ACE is about doing more with what you have.
Brown’s greater challenge is increasing airpower capability with the resources he has, and to do so a timeline that grows shorter every day. The Chinese navy is already bigger than America’s and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is on pace to overtake the U.S. Air Force in size and capability in less time than it took the United States to pull chocks in Afghanistan.
It’s not just about numbers. It takes the Air Force a decade or more to develop and field new capabilities, and the service urgently needs to accelerate that pace and to insert game-altering technologies and innovative operating concepts to dissuade China from pursuing its regional ambitions. Continued advances in stealth, manned-unmanned teaming, information sharing, satellite communication and intelligence, long-range precision weapons, advanced sensors, directed-energy, and more efficient and powerful engine technologies are all in the works. They need to reach the warfighter.
More critical are the operational concepts enabled by those technologies, which can unleash our joint military force to confound adversaries with more options and potential threats—air, land, sea, space, cyber—than they can fathom.
This is about shortening the kill chain, and it’s the promise behind Joint All-Domain Command and Control. It’s one reason why Frank Kendall, the new Secretary of the Air Force, repeats the mantra “one team, one fight” over and over. He spent the first half of his 50 years in defense locked in strategic competition with the Soviet Union. Since 2010 he’s watched China become America’s “pacing threat,” a strategic rival that competes militarily, technologically, and economically, as well. Winning against such a rival requires the entire joint team.
Kendall combines a data-centered analytic engineering sensibility with a lawyer’s linguistic precision. With degrees in both disciplines, he is an unusual combination of military technophile capable of extolling the potential of cognitive radar and policy critic, comfortably questioning whether JADC2’s proponents have focused sufficiently “on specific outcomes for specific operational purposes.”
His drive now, as it was when he was Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, is putting “meaningful military capability in the hands of warfighters.”
Kendall can play hardball. He once capped F-35 production for two years over developmental concerns and could be willing to do so again. “The thing people should remember about the F-35 is what a dramatically improved capability it is over fourth-generation aircraft,” he said in his first interview as secretary. He’s accepting of high operating costs for now, but impatient for the more capable Block 4 configuration that is lagging behind schedule.
As DOD’s chief weapons buyer, Kendall championed “Better Buying Power” and replaced PowerPoint briefings with database tools that ensured backup data was never more than a click or two away in program reviews. As secretary, he can be expected to incisively drill program executives and senior leaders but should also take time to hear wing-level operators share their perspectives on operational requirements and challenges.
Kendall heads an Air Force that, at 74 years old, is showing its age, and a Space Force that is more vulnerable than our nation can permit. The Air Force has too few aircraft overall, too many that are past their primes, and limited in its ability to deliver effective firepower in the face of modern air defenses. With too few bombers and fifth-generation fighters, it is too small to absorb losses, an inevitability in a peer fight. An Air Force needs to be big enough to fight through losses. This one is not.
Kendall is similarly challenged with the Space Force, which is unquestionably vulnerable to kinetic, cyber, and other threats. His role will be to ensure the Space Force develops and fields a more defensible and survivable space architecture and that the new service has the means to hold adversaries at risk in space.
Achieving these objectives will be too costly for the Air Force and Space Force to fund all on their own. While some in Congress and the administration will see the end of hostilities in Afghanistan as license to hack defense spending, the reality is that 30 years of constant combat since Desert Storm have left the Air Force in dire need of modernization. It’s like a house whose owner deferred maintenance for too long such that now it needs a near total renovation.
Kendall’s “one team, one fight” mantra applies within the Department of the Air Force as a reminder that Air and Space are intimately intertwined, but it serves just as well in his dealings across the rest of the Pentagon. The Army and Navy are no less dependent on the Air and Space Forces; indeed, they cannot win or fight without them. Restoring the Air Force and enabling the Space Force are joint responsibilities, and the expense must be borne by the entire Department of Defense.
Winning—or avoiding conflict in the future—depends on it. Repeat after Frank Kendall: “One team, one fight.”