Frank Kendall III Nominated as 26th Secretary of the Air Force

Frank Kendall III is the Biden administration’s nominee to be Secretary of the Air Force, succeeding Barbara M. Barrett in the role if confirmed, administration officials said. Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force officer who recently held a position in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, was nominated as undersecretary.

Kendall, 71, a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, served as the No. 3 official in the Pentagon for four years in the Obama administration, responsible for all matters pertaining to research and engineering, sustainment, testing, contract administration, and logistics. Immediately following his tenure as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, the expansive job was legislatively split into two parts: acquisition and sustainment, and research and technology. He was an advisor to the Biden campaign on national security and defense issues.

Kendall’s signature effort at AT&L was the “Better Buying Power” initiative, intended to streamline the Pentagon’s acquisition system, which led to significant improvements in defense programs’ cost and schedule. Noteworthy among these efforts was greater flexibility for program managers to use contracting vehicles that make the most sense for the program or services being acquired, rather than to follow a cookie-cutter approach to management. He conducted a major re-write of the acquisition system’s “5,000-series” rules, which were further simplified and reduced under his successor, Ellen M. Lord.   

Previously, Kendall served as the principal deputy to the AT&L position and acting undersecretary. An attorney, Kendall was vice president of engineering for the then-Raytheon Co., where he managed engineering functions and internal research and development. Before joining the Pentagon leadership, he was a managing partner at Renaissance Strategic Advisors, an aerospace and defense consulting firm.

In other Pentagon jobs, Kendall was director of tactical warfare programs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and was assistant deputy undersecretary for Strategic Defense Systems. He served 10 years on Active duty with the Army, during which he taught engineering at West Point.

Kendall holds a master’s in aerospace engineering from CalTech and an MBA from C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, as well as a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center. He has done extensive pro-bono work on human rights law.

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Kendall is an “excellent choice” for the job because he has a mastery of “all things technical, in manufacturing and R&D.” In addition, “For those of us who know him well, even though he’s not known for people issues, I think he’ll be great in this regard as well because he’s very committed to diversity and inclusion, families, and developing people.”

F. Whitten Peters, former Secretary of the Air Force under the Clinton administration and former Air Force Association Chairman of the Board, called Kendall “a very accomplished executive, both in DOD and industry, and I think he’ll be a real help to the Air Force, particularly as it aims to move procurement forward, faster, and in the rapid assimilation of new technology. He’s … very familiar with the Air Force’s issues, as he got the F-35 up and running” after program setbacks forced a restructure of the program. Kendall has “the right experience” for the job, Peters said.

If confirmed, Kendall “would be facing a familiar challenge of declining defense budgets at a critical time for the Department of the Air Force and its fledgling U.S. Space Force,” said former service Undersecretary Matthew P. Donovan, who is now director of AFA’s Mitchell Institute Spacepower Advantage Research Center.

“He would need to strongly support all Airmen and Guardians, staunchly advocate for the crucial importance of air and space power in support of the joint warfighter and great power competition, and set clear visions for the future” of both the Air Force and Space Force, Donovan said.

AFA president retired Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright said, “Frank is very experienced and understands the important role of our Airmen and Guardians in the defense of our nation.” He will be a strong advocate in helping the Department of the Air Force “deter, and be ready to defeat, rapidly growing peer threats.”

Kendall is “a very logical choice” for the Air Force Secretary job, according to Mark J. Lewis, who last served in government as the Pentagon’s director of defense research and engineering under the Trump administration, and is now the head of the National Defense Industrial Association’s nonpartisan Emerging Technologies Institute. The Air Force “has fully embraced the need for modernization, including the adoption of critical emerging technologies in a timely manner,” Lewis said, and Kendall’s background, “not only as a technologist but also as an acquisition expert, is ideally matched to the service’s most pressing needs.”

Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners, in an April 27 bulletin to investors, said Kendall may not support the pending acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne by Lockheed Martin, as he has previously warned against excessive consolidation in the defense industry. As an expert on tactical aviation, Kendall will also shape the ongoing joint-service “TacAir” review and will likely get involved with the interservice fracas regarding the Army’s attempt to claim some of the deep strike mission from the Air Force, via hypersonic missiles, Callan said. While Kendall will likely support continuation of the strategic triad, Callan wrote, he may “weigh in on another Minuteman III upgrade” that would defer funding of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program.

Jones, 40, was the 2018 Democratic candidate for Texas’s 23rd district House seat, which she narrowly lost to incumbent William Hurd. In a second run for the seat in 2019, she did not win the Democratic primary.

In keeping with the Biden administration’s effort to appoint leaders who “look like America,” Jones would be the first openly gay person of color to hold the undersecretary position. She is of Filipino descent.

A native of San Antonio, Texas, Jones received an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to attend Boston University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies and a master’s in mathematics. She served in the Air Force three years as an intelligence officer, deploying to Iraq and reaching the rank of captain. Jones received a master’s from the Army Command and General Staff College. As a student and on Active duty, she was required to conceal her sexual identity under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

She later worked as a civilian for U.S. Africa Command and the Defense Intelligence Agency, where she specialized in Latin American affairs.

In late 2016, Jones joined the office of the U.S. Trade Representative and stayed on into the Trump administration. She left in 2017 to seek the seat in Congress.