The urgency of adapting the Air and Space Forces to meet the rapid growth of China’s military is driving Secretary Frank Kendall’s “re-optimization” of the service, he and other top department leaders said in September.
The expected changes include a return to some Cold War-era hallmarks—like Operational Readiness Inspections and annual large-scale exercises similar to the old “Reforger” series—but not a wholesale return to a Cold War posture, he said.
In an open letter to Airmen and Guardians on Sept. 5, Kendall directed all the major commands, operating agencies, and other Department of the Air Force activities to conduct a four-month review of their organizations, policies and procedures, in search of improvements that will make them more nimble.
Focus areas will be on organization, equipment, personnel readiness, and how the force is supported. The reviews will culminate in an action plan he wants ready by Jan. 1, 2024, and implemented over the course of the coming year. The review isn’t intended to shape the fiscal 2025 budget request, coming as it is too late in the process, though it will inform it, officials said; it should have much more influence on the FY26 plan.
Speaking with reporters at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference, Kendall emphasized his objective to re-optimize, not reorganize, the Air Force. He said he’s seen the need to refocus building over the past two years.
“It started with the recognition that we didn’t have institutions in place that could do some of the activities we started under the Operational Imperatives, for example, or the cross-cutting operational enablers,” Kendall’s acquisition priorities for the two services. The fact that “we need to create organizations to do work we should have been able to do with existing organizations” highlighted the need for change.
“As I traveled around and got to know the force better, I determined that we were not as deployable as I think we should be, to support our operations plans,” he added. “We can do it, of course, but it would require disruption and we’re … not practicing that at the levels that I think we should be.”
The goal of the review is to better enable the Air and Space Forces to deter China and to match the forces’ practices and procedures to the requirements of the National Defense Strategy.
“We will conduct a major initiative over the next several months to identify and implement the changes needed to meet our pacing challenge,” China, Kendall wrote in the letter.
In his keynote speech at the conference, Kendall said it’s been clear to him “for over a decade that China is intent on fielding a force that can conduct aggression in the Western Pacific and prevail, even if the United States intervenes.” China’s efforts are not simply geared to “regional conventional forces,” he said, but to “dramatically expanding its nuclear force and military space capabilities.” Against this determined effort, “we cannot sustain deterrence by standing still.”
Reassessing long-established “habits and structures” is challenging, because change is uncomfortable, but Kendall noted some changes are already well underway, such as the Air Force force generation (AFFORGEN) construct and the “evolving allocation of responsibility across Space Force field commands.”
Yet he also questioned whether AFFORGEN can work without changes, and said greater scrutiny of readiness will be necessary.
Back to Big Wargames
“We’re not evaluating units the way we once did during the Cold War, for their readiness to deploy as a warfighting entity,” Kendall told reporters.
“We haven’t done anything like … Reforger … for a long time,” he recalled, referencing the Cold War exercises in which large numbers of stateside USAF aircraft and personnel picked up and deployed rapidly to Europe.
The Mobility Guardian exercise that ran this summer in the Pacific was primarily a mobility exercise, not one that pressed the entire force. Other large wargames—but not “Cold War” large—include Air Defender 23 in Europe, which was valuable in that it involved the Air National Guard in a large-force, multinational exercise.
“So we need to start changing how we’re doing the things to prepare our forces,” he said. “We need to have organizations … that are more easily deployable, and people need to know that they’re in an organization, and that they have the job of going and entering into the fight as a unit.”
The Air Force hasn’t operated that way for years; instead, overseas units are frequently assembled on the fly from multiple, even dozens of commands. “We basically crowdsource” those deployments, he pointed out, sending “small groups or individuals as replacements into the Middle East when we rotate units out, as opposed to having the unit go and serve as a unit.”
Kendall wants to return to a more predictable model where units build rapport and work together to accomplish specific missions. “We need to train them that way,” he said. And we need to evaluate their ability to do that function.”
Kendall said the senior uniformed Air Force leadership has been assembling “Air Task Forces” in “an attempt to address that same sort of a problem for the Middle East, which is a different deployment scenario than something in the Pacific.” The first of these was announced Sept. 8, with two assigned to U.S. Central Command and one to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
“These are not the final, permanent, deployable units we expect to form, but they are a major step in the right direction,” according to Kendall. “We will learn from this experience.”
Design for Deployment
Part of the problem is that support functions needed for a deployment “aren’t entirely separable” from the base they come from, because the “command that runs the base” and “the warfighting organization” overlap. Deploying some units as a team would leave a deficit at the home base.
The Agile Combat Employment model—which will see hub-and-spoke, small-unit deployments of aircraft and other capabilities widely dispersed throughout a theater—demands different structures, Kendall said.
“All of our tactical air programs need to be able to operate in [the] Agile Combat Employment concept,” Kendall advised, “which means that you don’t stick yourself on one base and stay there till you’re shot at. You go to other bases, and you move around so that you’re hard to target.”
To go with that, “we also have to look at the support functions; the idea … that with a relatively small group of Airmen who are capable of doing more than one job, you can go operate in a more austere fashion off of a secondary field. … So we want to have the capability to do that,” he said.
To make it work, “you need … power generation, you need security, you need … support functions, life support, etc. So we want to tailor organizations to have that capability. And while we practice some of these things operationally, up to a point, we really haven’t created those organizations, built them into our doctrine and have people who are ready to fall in on them and do those types of missions,” Kendall said.
In his letter outlining the review, Kendall said the readiness evaluation will scrutinize “how we create, sustain, and evaluate readiness” across the two services, while the “support” review will range from installations to “mobilizing, demobilizing, providing operational medicine, etc.”
The department also needs to scrutinize “the equipping side,” and “restoring some of the long-term competitive types of development-focused organizations that we had during the Cold War,” Kendall asserted. “I don’t necessarily think we need to go back and emulate Cold War structures, but they can be instructive about what we need.”
Service officials said privately that there may be some “tweaking” of the organizations that develop and field equipment and supplies. In 1992, Air Force Systems Command—which developed new equipment—and Air Force Logistics Command—which sustained it—were merged to form Air Force Materiel Command in order to have one organization responsible for managing systems from “cradle to grave.” Now officials say the service may re-look at that merger, because of the speed required to field new gear and to better support “logistics under fire.”
Not the Usual Acquisition Reform
Andrew Hunter, the Air Force’s acquisition executive, told reporters speed will be the new priority in how the Air Force develops and buys equipment, superseding cost and performance under the new re-optimization plans.
This will be unlike previous acquisition reforms, Hunter said.
“Where one lays the priority in acquisition reform has shifted over time,” he noted. While the priority until recently has been on controlling cost and buying only the minimum of anything necessary to address the peer threat, now “the priority that … is absolutely foremost” is speed, Hunter said. The review will be “incredibly focused” on rapidly delivering capability to the field.
“We know the capabilities that we have to maintain, develop … or recapture” to be competitive with China, he said. China has gained advantages in spectrum warfare and certain kinds of munitions. “We will be doing things that are directly tied to achieving those outcomes; organizationally, process, budgetarily … very focused on those specific goals,” Hunter added. The needed outcome is delivering “integrated capabilities through a development pipeline.”
Hunter also said it’s important that new capabilities have “a home; a place for them to go, and then that they tie into our acquisition strategies and our program approaches,” so that there’s a mechanism to sustain and upgrade them over time. Examples of new capabilities in need of “a home,” senior officials said, include directed energy and Collaborative Combat Aircraft, crucial developments that may not instantly fit into existing portfolios.
“Where do you put those?” asked one official, explaining the challenge. “Is DE a munition? Ammunition? Spectrum warfare? … Are CCAs fighters? Missiles? … There are a number of those things that need to be rationalized, and it’s not something we can just figure out after the fact.”
Though Hunter said the acquisition system can already do a lot of the things that will be needed, the review will look for ways to reduce “friction” in the process, so there’s “as little gap as possible between stages of the development process.” There’s “plenty of work to do to up our game in that area,” he said.
The end state of the re-optimization review and implementation strategy “will be a department that is better aligned with being responsive to the basic challenge … that’s the bottom line,” Kendall said. “We must ensure that the Air Force and Space Force are optimized to provide integrated deterrence, support campaigning, and ensure enduring advantage.”
The department will certainly “learn from our experience” and “we’ll iterate” the changes made during the re-optimization, but “the intent here is to do kind of a pulse of major changes that will put us in a much better position … [better aligned to] the types of threats that are most of concern to us.”
The study and review will not stop with the Jan. 1 deadline, Kendall said, suggesting the process will be “a never-ending journey.”
But with a focused effort to study the issue now, he said, “I think we can get a big increment closer to something that’s more aligned with the problem that we have.”