Kendall: Modernize Now to Counter China

China is “acquiring a first-strike capability” with its nuclear forces, and the Department of the Air Force does not have “a moment to lose” in modernizing its conventional and nuclear capabilities, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in his keynote address at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

Kendall confessed he “worked hard to get this specific job” because of his grave concern about China’s military advance—saying his priorities are “China, China, and China”—and said the Air and Space Forces are the key national security instruments to match and deter China’s capability. He also warned Congress that the Air Force will fall behind its Chinese counterparts if it must continue to field irrelevant gear for the sake of constituent jobs.

He revealed that the Air Force has five B-21 stealth bombers in production, and Kendall is scrutinizing the Advanced Battle Management System, which he called “not focused,” to get it to do what the service needs it to. He also pledged faster prototyping and better linking of prototypes with quickly-fielded capabilities.

China has moved away from a “wise and prudent” policy of maintaining a credible “minimal deterrent” nuclear force, Kendall said, and he noted recent revelations in the press that China has embarked on a furious pace of building ICBMs and silos.

“Whether intended or not, China is acquiring a first-strike capability,” Kendall declared. While “No one could rationally desire or plan to initiate a nuclear war”—and he said he’s convinced “China does not”—the missile-building program is cause for deep concern and creates the possibility of “a catastrophic mistake.” The Air Force does not have “a moment to lose” in modernizing its own nuclear forces and matching China’s surge in conventional capability.  

To that end, Kendall said five B-21 stealth bombers are in production at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., factory. Program officials have forecast a first flight in mid-2022.

Kendall said that since 2010, he’s been “pounding the drum about how serious a threat” China’s military modernization program is to “the ability of the United States to project power” in the Indo-Pacific.

China is “increasing inventory levels and the sophistication of their weapons and modernizing redundant systems throughout the kill chains that support their weapons,” he explained. These include “hypersonic weapons, a full range of anti-satellite systems, plus cyber, electronic warfare, and challenging air-to-air weapons.”

China has also “invested smartly in anti-access area denial systems designed to defeat US power projection,” with “precision weapons of steadily increasing ranges” and steadily growing numbers, Kendall said.

The range of these weapons has “gone from a few hundred miles to thousands to literally around the globe,” he added, going “from a few high-value assets near [its] shores to the second and third island chains,” and most recently to intercontinental ranges and even to the potential for global strikes from space. China is rapidly fielding new “aircraft carriers, air bases, and logistic nodes in their near abroad.”

Kendall is a West Point graduate but said if the U.S. is going to “win the ‘one fight’ to keep our freedom, it will be because of the success of our Air and Space Forces.” While he respects the roles of the other branches, “without control of space and the air domains, their missions become all but unexecutable.”

“Only the Air and Space Forces have the ability to control the global high ground. Only the Air and Space Forces can project power on short notice to anywhere that it is needed. Only the Air and Space Forces have the ability to confront and defeat aggression immediately, wherever it occurs,” he said. “Only the Air and Space Forces have the ability to come to the aid of our global allies and partners with little to no notice when and where aggression occurs.”

To be stronger, “we are going to have to change,” Kendall said. “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.”

Kendall said he came into office just a few days before the fiscal year 2022 budget request was submitted and noted that it “did not comply with every piece of direction the Department of the Air Force has ever been given by Congress, which seems to have some very strong views on the importance of retaining aircraft that we no longer need and that do not intimidate China. The costs of these aircraft are consuming precious resources we do need for modernization.”

He urged Congress not to cling to “legacy systems” that don’t address existing threats, let alone future ones, and asked members to set aside constituent interests for national ones.

Frequently during his confirmation process, he said, it wasn’t unusual to have a “senator agree with me” on the need to address the Chinese threat “and in the same breath to tell me that under no circumstances could the—take your pick—C-130s, A-10s, KC-10s, or MQ-9s in that senator’s state be retired, nor could any base in his or her state ever be closed or suffer losses that would reduce local revenues.”

The Air Force “will not succeed against a well-resourced and strategic competitor if we insist on keeping every legacy system we have,” he warned. “Our one team cannot win its one fight to deter China or Russia without the resources we need and a willingness to balance risk today to avoid much greater risk in the future. I do understand the political constraints here, and I’m happy to work with Congress to find a better mechanism to make the changes we need, but we must move forward.”

Kendall said the Air Force shouldn’t 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 plans to strengthen these links and “use state-of-the-art analytical tools to do so.”

He said he views the Advanced Battle Management System as not having “adequately focused on achieving and fielding specific measurable improvements in operational outcomes.” He will push to “keep our eye on the ball,” meaning “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.”

The Next Generation Air Dominance program, he noted, has been underway in one form or another since 2012 and “has demonstrated key technologies in an experimental risk reduction prototype that is directly on the path” to a new fighter. He said it’s “more than a next-generation tactical aircraft, however; it is a coordinated systems-of-systems approach to air dominance.”

Space Force is “pursuing a space-based ground moving target indicator, or GMTI, capability,” that will “replace a portion of the JSTARS sensing capability,” Kendall said. “It will surpass the range limitations of current air platforms, and will provide capabilities in both contested and non-contested environments.”

His “observation from outside of government for the last few years is that the Departments of Defense, and of the Air Force, have embraced the idea of innovation and the pursuit of innovation without adequate attention to how innovation should be harnessed to specific operational performance improvements.” That will change under his leadership.

“We must be open minded and objective about the operational doors that technologies like autonomy, artificial intelligence, microelectronics, data analytics, and others can open for us,” Kendall asserted.  

He also urged a faster pace to embracing new operational concepts, noting that “we are not accustomed to contending with a capable peer competitor. Even our most senior military leaders have little to no experience dealing with a peer competitor,” and the service has lost much of our ‘muscle memory’” in this regard, having focused on violent extremists for decades.

“We need a strong sense of urgency, but change for change’s sake isn’t the answer. If we don’t get the direction of change right, our actions will be counterproductive, and we will continue to squander our most precious resource, time,” he warned.

Kendall said he’s deeply concerned about surveys that show conclusively that the Air Force isn’t providing opportunities for all its people fairly and pledged to take action to embrace diversity. He also expressed alarm that a third of all USAF women have reported sexual harassment and promised to address the issue with urgency.

“My intent is to actively address each of these issues,” Kendall said. “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.”

With regard to sexual assault and harassment, “we will be implementing the Independent Review Commission’s recommendations and any statutory guidance regarding separate reporting and prosecution channels that comes out of the Congress this fall. I intend for the Department of the Air Force to be ready to implement that guidance immediately once it becomes law.”

Kendall praised the efforts of Airmen to evacuate both military and civilian personnel from Afghanistan, chalking it up as one of the unique capabilities of the Air Force to accomplish such a feat. However, he said the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban offers a lesson “that we, as Americans, and we as Airmen and Guardians, should not miss.”

That lesson—“painfully clear”—is that 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.” The Department of the Air Force, the U.S. military, and the nation need to recognize the need to act in unison to address common threats, he said.  

He also pledged a closer working relationship with industry members and to exploit the expertise in the academic and nontraditional industrial communities to address the threats faced by the Department.

“There is not a moment to lose,” Kendall asserted.