Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall speaks with Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond during his first staff meeting with the Department of the Air Force’s service chiefs, at the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., July 28, 2021. Eric Dietrich/USAF
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Q&A: Welcome Back, Secretary Kendall

Aug. 27, 2021

Frank Kendall became the 26th Secretary of the Department of the Air Force  on July 28, 2021. An engineer, lawyer, and West Point graduate, Kendall was the Defense Department undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics from 2012 to 2017. He spoke with Editor in Chief Tobias Naegele and Pentagon Editor Brian Everstine Aug. 6.

Q. What made you come back to the Pentagon, and why this job?

A: The short answer is I thought I could make a contribution to our national security. I’ve been obsessed, if you will, or ‘very concerned’ maybe would be a better way to say it, with Chinese military modernization since 2010. And I think we have made some progress in addressing that problem. But there’s a lot more that can be done. And I have a long background in the intersection of technology and operations. And I thought that I could make a contribution in that area. There is a lot of things happening with technology that are offering some interesting opportunities. I think the department, and particularly the Department of the Air Force, has an opportunity to take advantage of those technologies and do some pretty interesting things.  

Q: Within the Air Force, what are some examples?

A: Well, the obvious one that people talk about a lot is artificial intelligence and autonomous capabilities. But there are others. There’s some sensing advantages that are coming along, there are opportunities there. Things like cognitive radar, and cognitive [electronic warfare]. There are things that allow us to take some commercial technologies and communicate much more effectively and process data much more effectively, that allow us to make better decisions, [in] various parts of an engagement scenario, if you will. And I think we can mature that technology very quickly and get it applied to military problems.

Q: That sounds like the Advanced Battle Management System, if you’ve been following the Air Force development in that area. What potential do you see there?

A: Yeah, I have from the outside, and in the larger picture of [joint all-domain command and control]. And I think it’s absolutely correct that if we can integrate our capabilities and use them more efficiently, we’ll get a better outcome. My observation from the outside was that we hadn’t focused that effort on specific outcomes for specific operational purposes. And I thought I could help us do that, at least for the Air and Space Forces, and hopefully, with the joint force as well.

Q: The Air Force has had challenges with acquisition. You certainly oversaw some of those programs in your last job. How does that background apply to what you just described?

A: Well, what I did in acquisition is a very different job here. I’m not coming here to be the acquisition executive for the Air Force, I’m the Secretary. But generally speaking, programs should be laid out to get to meaningful operational capability as quickly as possible. And I’ve looked at literally hundreds, if not more, a thousand maybe, programs. So I’ve got 50 years of experience doing that now, roughly. And I worked very hard when I was in the acquisition position downstairs in the [Defense] Secretary’s office to structure programs to get to that objective of meaningful military capability as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible. You know, cost and schedule overruns disrupt everybody else. They cause lots of problems, and I try to avoid those, but do so in an approach that took some risk, but not outrageous amounts of risk. And what I’ve seen in the last few years, is situations where people are going very, very quickly, but not necessarily in the right direction and not necessarily very efficiently. If you’re running fast in the wrong direction, you’re not making progress. And if you’re running as if you’re in a sprint when you’re actually in a marathon, you’re not going to do very well either. So, getting what we do right is first, and then doing it in the most efficient way is second, and in this position, I’m going to be focused on both.

‘We need to tap into all the human capital potential that’s out there,” Kendall said. He also praised his leadership team, from left to right, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. Raymond, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., Kendall, and Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones. Eric Dietrich/USAF

Q: You talked about going very quickly, but not necessarily in the right direction. [Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.] has said the Air Force must accelerate change or lose. … How do you know you’re making progress?

A: Well, there was a discipline that was very prominent during the Cold War—I spent the first 20 years of my career in the Cold War working on some of the types of issues that we’re actually confronted with now—[a] peer competitor who’s acting very aggressively to try to defeat us, and responding to that. One of the things that we did then routinely, and in great depth, was operational analysis. Modeling and analysis to support requirements decisions. And I noticed when I came back in 2010 … that we weren’t doing that. That capability had atrophied. So, one of the things I hope to do is recreate some of that or expand on the capabilities that we have now. That’s the work you need to do upfront to help you get the right decisions about what it is you’re going to build. And you bring into that mix, an understanding of technology and what it can support. Some cases, technologies you still think can be developed, but aren’t quite there yet. They’ll enable that sort of thing that you want to have as an operational capability. And once you’ve done that, then you can go off in kind of as efficient of a process as possible to get to the outcome that you’re looking for. … But if you don’t do that work upfront, you risk finding out that you’ve gone in the wrong direction, or you’re doing something that really isn’t going to give you much of an operational advantage, or that’s not even achievable, or [it] just isn’t going to be done … in anywhere near the time and level that you’re planning.

Q: How do you see the personnel and force structure side of things?

A: One of my biggest challenges will be making sure I have people working for me who are as capable as possible of doing the jobs that have to be done. We talk a lot about diversity, and I’m fully supportive of that, I think we need to have to tap into all the human capital potential that’s out there, wherever it may come from. One area—I surprise people when I say this—but one thing that I think we need to do is make sure we have more engineers. We need to have people who are technically astute. We’re in a technological competition, in part, and developing technologies and then applying them more effectively than our potential adversaries is the key to success. And what I just described is engineering. And I think, since the Cold War ended, we have let some of our capability in that area atrophy. It’s not been emphasized as much because we came out of that era, in the first Gulf War, with a very strong dominance in conventional warfare. We demonstrated it very convincingly back in 1991. But that’s a long time ago. And the people who studied that operation more than anyone else probably were the Chinese. And I remember reading about what they were saying about what we had accomplished. And they’ve reacted. …They’ve assessed how we fight, how we project power, in particular. And they’ve analyzed where our weak points are, and they’re coming after them. I’ve been saying this since 2010.

Q: How can you get more engineers into the service?

A: Well, we offer them challenging work, we offer them very important work. And as an engineer, personally, I think those are two things that I find very attractive. We are in competition with a very aggressive and dynamic—and sometimes lucrative—commercial market. But if you want to do something meaningful for your country, if you want to do something that’s cutting edge, something that’s vitally important to the continuation of our freedom and our way of life, then we have that opportunity for you. And we’ll be looking for people who can come in and do that and I’ll be emphasizing that a lot.

Q: Within the past year, the Air Force has conducted two large-scale reviews that found very significant barriers to service among minority Airmen, women, and LGBTQ service members. How can you break down those barriers to ensure all Airmen have the same chances to succeed?

A: We are going to check that problem aggressively. I’ve got two great leaders in the service chiefs, in General Raymond and General Brown. There are programs in place to do that. We want to make sure every Airman and Guardian is treated with dignity and respect and we have a culture in which that is the norm and anything else is not accepted. It’s largely a leadership problem to me. And we need to address it at every level. And we need to address it constantly. I’m going to be emphasizing that, I’m going to be talking with Airmen. I’m a believer in using data to support decisions. We’re going to be trying to measure our performance in that area. And it’s not just about how many people you have in the service of different categories. It’s about how those people feel about the way they’re treated, how they feel their careers are progressing, whether they feel they’re being treated fairly or not, what kind of environment they live in. And we’re gonna do everything we can to make sure that people come into the Air Force know that they have an opportunity to grow to their full potential and to be appreciated for what they’re able to do.

Q: You just you said, ‘I’m a believer in using data to make decisions.’ How do you apply that kind of thinking at this level? You’ve got more data to look at now. Do you anticipate creating an Air Force dashboard, a readiness dashboard?

A: Actually, now that you mentioned it, I am. I did a report each year on the performance of the Defense Acquisition System. And I haven’t fully fleshed this idea out yet or discussed it in detail with the staff. But I do think we should be looking at meaningful metrics in each of the areas that we’re managing, whether it’s financial management, human resources management, management of our installations, as well as acquisition. And so I am going to be looking for ways to assess performance, to ask our leaders to develop plans of action, and ways to assess their performance. And then I’m going to be monitoring them. I’ve always been a big believer in the idea of continuous improvement. And these are not problems that people have never worked before, obviously they have, right? But under that doctrine, you look for places where you think you can have an impact, you apply policies, you measure the results of those policies, and then you make adjustments. That was what I did for the seven years I was running acquisition. And I haven’t really, again, had the chance to pursue this very far with the staff. But the concept I have is that we will do that for any number of areas that are my responsibility now. I have a mantra that I’ve been using since I came in, and it really applies to all this. It’s the idea of ‘one team one fight,’ that we work together to achieve common goals, and that we reinforce each other and support each other. The one fight, and you asked me about why I came back, the one fight is this contest we’re in with a strategic competitor. And it’s a long-term contest. It’s not something that’s going to be resolved in the next year or two. China, in particular—certainly is a formidable competitor—but [we] can’t discount Russia entirely. And I have a memory of being in a competition just like this one. There’s some differences. But we had a competitor during the Cold War, who was, technologically, reasonably sophisticated. For our good fortune, the Soviets at the time, while they had good scientists and engineers, were horrible at manufacturing things. They couldn’t make things. But they were smart. And they were working hard to try to get ahead of us. And it was a constant understanding of that that motivated us every single day. And we need to get back to that mindset. So the idea of one team is that the Air Force, and certainly within[the Department of] the Air Force, the Space Force and the Air Force, have to work together. We also have to work in a joint environment. We have to work with our allies and our partners, other aspects of the federal government. At the end of the day, it’s a team writ large, which is trying to protect our national security that we’re a part of, and a critical part of.

Q: We’re coming up the second anniversary of the creation of the Space Force. What is your plan for continuing that service’s growth, and how the Space Force can address the problems that you just laid out?

A: First of all, what I’ve seen so far, [USSF Chief of Space Operations Gen.] Jay Raymond has done a fantastic job and he’s had great support from [USAF Chief of Staff Gen.] C.Q. Brown. They’re off to a good start. It’s not easy to set up an organization like that. The model of the Marine Corps and the Navy doesn’t apply exactly. The Space Force in terms of people is quite small. In terms of importance, it’s quite large. And the types of systems they operate are, for the most part, not manned. So it’s a different kind of a service in several ways. General Raymond fully understands that. And I think he’s worked hard to keep the service lean, and to tailor it to the specific missions that he has. And I think General Brown has worked very hard to ensure that the Space Force is supported fully by the corporate Air Force, if you will. And in my case, I think the people that were here did well in the Secretariat, to ensure that that organization, and those organizations, also supported that endeavor. But it’s early stages yet—we still have a lot of work to do. We’re going to learn from what we’ve done. And we’re going to adjust as we go forward. But I think we’re off to a really good start.

Q: What does the Space Force really get to own and control, in the end? Budgetarily, you’ve got more money that goes out through the Air Force as a pass-through than the Space Force gets probably by a factor of four. Do you have a picture of where you think those two things need to go?

A: Roughly, yes. That money is referred to as pass-through money that is in the Air Force’s overall budget but goes to other parts of the government. It’s been that way for a very long time. And I think it might be clearer to people who are casual observers of the budgets that if that money were somewhere else, then you could put it into the Department of Defense at the department level, you could put it into other places, potentially. I don’t find that to be terribly debilitating. Most people understand what it’s there for, why it’s there, that it’s a convenience to have it there, basically, budgetarily. So, among the things I’m worried about, that’s not at the top of my list. What I’m focused on is what we do have for the Space Force, what [are] the missions the Space Force has, and whether it has adequate resources to do those missions, and authorities. There are also, I think, questions that I hope to help answer: Where does the Space Force go? What is our future order of battle in space? And again, I’ve been quite encouraged by the work that I’ve seen that’s been done. The fundamental change that led to the creation of the Space Force was the recognition that we no longer have impunity in space. And that happened back in the Obama administration, we changed our strategy, in the second term of the Obama administration, to account for the fact that space was contested, and that we no longer could assume that our resources there were going to be survivable. We also had to deal with the fact that some of our potential adversaries were fielding their own space capabilities that were very threatening to our capabilities, particularly terrestrial capabilities. So, we’ve got to sort through. Again, we’ve made progress. This is one of the areas where I thought I could be helpful coming back in. But we’ve got to figure out what our future order of battle is, now we’ve got to figure out the most efficient path to get there. And from what I’ve seen so far, I think General Raymond and his team and others have made a pretty good start at that. But we do have more work to do there, too.

Q: What is your read on the progression of some of the major programs of the Air Force? For example, how LRSB has become the B-21?

A: I actually walked in here from a from a brief on it, but that really doesn’t mean I can tell you anything about it.

Q: Or, on Next-Generation Air Dominance. NGAD came out of a proposal to really change how the Air Force is doing acquisition, with digital engineering, the digital century series proposal. Have you been briefed on that, and what’s your read on that approach?

A: I’m working through that process. Now, I’ve been here, I think including weekends, 10 days. I have been anxious to get in the saddle, so to speak, get inside and get to work, because we’re in the middle of the process of preparing our FY23 budget, and I’ve done a lot of budget preparations. I understand what happens within that process. So I wanted to get here when I could be most influential. I think it’s fair to say that I may have just made it. But I came in, I think, two days before our program objective memoranda were due downstairs to the Secretary of Defense’s office. … I’ve been given a little bit of time at least to review where we are and possibly make some changes and alternative proposals, if you will. So, I’m in the middle of that right now. It’s been a pretty hectic first 10 days. Now, I’ve had great support from the staff. That’s been very encouraging and we’re working our way through that. So, it’s possible that I’ll make some different recommendations than the Air Force did or would have made before I came and then we’ll go through a process with the secretary’s office to end up with a budget we’ll submit. In parallel with that, we’re working on a National Defense Strategy, which should influence what we finally do, and I think it will. So, there are a lot of moving parts right now that I’ve jumped into the middle of. To your specific question on programs, I give every political appointee I’ve ever met the same advice: Never say that a program is doing great or is in good shape, because you never know for sure what’s going to happen tomorrow. That said, it’s encouraging to me to see that some of the programs that I was involved with before I left seem to be staying on schedule and cost so far. Doesn’t mean they will tomorrow. But so far, they’re working reasonably well to plan. NGAD hadn’t really started, it was very early stages when I was here before. And that’s a highly classified program. I can’t say very much about it, but it’s one of the ones I’m looking at. You mentioned the B-21. That one was a little more mature when I left. And I think the Air Force has put out that that’s performing reasonably well. What I’ve seen [so far] suggests that’s the case. So, I’m encouraged by that. But again, we still have a long way to go.

Q: A program that you certainly oversaw is F-35. And the challenge there has not so much been getting the cost down, they seem to have done OK with that, but reducing its operating costs?

A: The operating costs are high. And I actually had a conversation with [Joint Program Office]about that today, too. I haven’t looked into it in detail, but they do feel that they have some ways to reduce costs significantly that they’re still exploring. So that’s encouraging. The thing that people should remember about the F-35 is what a dramatically improved capability it is over fourth-generation aircraft. It is a game-changing tactical air warfare capability. And it is expensive, compared to much earlier systems, which are much simpler and much less capable. I don’t think that even … at the current level, I’d be willing to pay that for a certain number of airplanes because of the dominance that will give us in the air. But as we expand the fleet, and we try to upgrade it to greater capabilities, which we need to do, we do need to drive those costs down. Some of the technologies that are involved in sustainment, like the [Autonomic Logistics Information System], for example, have their roots in technology that is quite old. The Air Force has been working to upgrade that system or replace it. And I haven’t seen the details of that yet. But I think there’s some real opportunities there. We can hopefully reduce some manpower through that, we can reduce the cycle times for maintenance, and get some savings there as well. There are also some technologies that could go into future upgrades that could reduce some of the operational costs such as fuel significantly, but we’re not ready to commit to those at this point.

The F-35 “is a game-changing tactical air warfare capability,” Kendall said. “But it’s critically important to the success of that program that we get the Technology Refresh 3 fielded into it, get the Block 4 upgrade fielded. … Meaningful military capability in the hands of operators. That’s what it’s all about.” Airman 1st Class Jake Welty

Q: You mean a next-generation engine?

A: Mm-hmm.

Q: The Air Force is going to get 48 in the ’22 budget, fewer than in the last few budgets. At some point, buying more should help bring the cost down?

A: Of course, but you’ve got to be buying the airplane that you need, and the airplane that we need right now is the is the Block 4 airplane, with the Technology Refresh 3, which is having problems. So what I think we need to look at, at this point, is what the appropriate production rate is to get us from where we are to when we have that capability in hand. And the contractors have not been performing very well, there have been a lot of problems with that. We’re a situation that bears some resemblance to one that I had earlier on around Lot 4 or so, when there were a lot of design issues on the plane that hadn’t been resolved, and we were in the process of buying airplanes that were going to need expensive modifications. At that point, I seriously considered stopping production for two or three years to get those design issues resolved. … I decided not to do that. But instead of ramping up, as we had planned, I held the production rate constant at 30 for two years, to put pressure on the contractor, in part, but also to avoid buying airplanes that we were going to do expensive modifications on after we bought them. That worked out, and we got, that cycle anyway, cost under control, got most of those design issues resolved. So, we could be in a similar situation now. … I don’t want to lean too far forward on this without looking at it much more carefully. But it’s critically important to the success of that program and the capability of that platform that we get the Technology Refresh 3 fielded into it, get the Block 4 upgrade fielded. Remember what I said earlier—meaningful military capability in the hands of operators. That’s what it’s all about. 

Q: There’s been some discussion of a DOD roles and missions review. Do you see a place for that? What missions do you see are core to the Air Force? And what could some other services pick up? The Army’s looking at more long-range fires, for example.

A: I’m not aware any major changes are being contemplated there. There may be some being discussed somewhere that I’m not aware of. I have no problem with the Army having some long-range precision fires, I think they can take out targets that are threatening to the Air Force, or even to the Space Force potentially, and to other sister services. The ‘one team, one fight’ mantra that I use, you know, we’re all in this together, and it’s about meaningful military capability. And if the services can support each other, that’s what we need to do. So, if the most efficient way, operationally and just from cost-effectiveness point of view, is to deal with certain targets is to have the Army use long-range fires against them, I’m all for it. It’ll save Airmen’s lives. If the most efficient way is to use airpower, then I’m all for that. If the most efficient way is to use space power, I’m all for that. The whole ‘one team, one fight’ thing is about setting aside parochialism and institutional interests and biases, in some cases, keep focused on the thing we’re trying to accomplish here, which is to ensure that the United States stays the dominant military power in the world. And that’s it, that’s being challenged. That’s a big thing. And I think we’ve got to change our mindset to make that the first thing we think about when we contemplate these decisions.

Q: What surprised you, since you got here? You’ve been here 10 days, certainly there have been things you’ve seen that were not what you expected?

A: The thing that surprised me the most is perhaps how fast I was able to get back in the saddle, how quickly I adapted back to the Pentagon pace of doing business, to 12- and 14-hour days and not getting much sleep. And going from one subject to the other. And the intensity of what we’re trying to do here, coupled with its importance, I think, and the terrific people that I get to work with. I said to somebody the other day that I actually like working in the Pentagon. There [aren’t] many people that would say that out loud. But as in the show “Hamilton,” this is the room where it happens. In fact, this is the building where it happens. This is where we decide. And again, getting back to attracting people in the workforce: This is where we’re going to do the things and make the decisions [that] are going to keep us safe and—free or not. And it’s an honor, it’s an awesome amount of responsibility I have and it’s very humbling to be back in that game again after a four-year hiatus. But it’s also incredibly stimulating and rewarding and fulfilling. And I feel like I walked in the building, and there I was back in the game just like that. It was an interesting thing to experience.

Q: Can you say how the offer came to you? 

A: Yes I can, in general terms, I got a call from the White House basically and asked if I was interested. That didn’t take me long to think. … And then I talked with Deputy Secretary [Kathleen] Hicks and Defense Secretary [Lloyd J.] Austin. Things proceed from there.

Kendall urges everyone in the Air Force family to get vaccinated, “for the team.” Capt. Sarah Gilbert, (center, kneeling) discusses the COVID-19 vaccine with a basic trainee assigned at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.
Tech. Sgt. Tory Patterson

Q: Anything else that you wanted to say to close? 

A: There’s one thing I would say to our Airmen and Guardians in particular, and to their families: Please get vaccinated. We’re experiencing something that is life-threatening, dangerous for us, it’s not good for the team. If you get vaccinated, you’re gonna help protect your teammates and your loved ones. So, the Delta variant of COVID that’s out there is spreading rapidly. I watch the data, and we’re back in exponential growth again. Every morning I get a report about other air bases that have raised their levels of concern about COVID and [are] taking greater steps. If we want to get out of this and really get this behind us, people have to get vaccinated. And so the one thing I would say is to urge our Airmen, our Guardians, their families, and the people that they know, associate with, their loved ones, to get vaccinated.