WASHINGTON — After being sworn in as the U.S. Air Force’s top civilian, Frank Kendall went straight to the budget books.
Kendall, a former Pentagon acquisition chief who is well-acquainted with the world of military technology, immediately immersed himself in the Air Force’s fiscal 2023 budget and directed a number of last-minute adjustments to the plan.
The goal, Kendall told Defense News in an exclusive Aug. 13 interview, should be to field the kinds of leap-ahead technologies that “scare China.” But whether the Air Force can do that depends on how successful it is in convincing Congress it must make near-term sacrifices to its existing aircraft inventory.
“The Air Force has been overly constrained,” Kendall said. “I think we’ve not been allowed to do things we really need to do to free up resources for things that are higher priority. We’ve had a very hard time getting the Congress to allow us to retire older aircraft.”
Kendall declined to elaborate about specific spending changes he sought in the FY23 budget — a proposal Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown has said will reveal the service’s bold plan to modernize the fleet — but signaled he is pressing for an even more ambitious proposal.
“I’ve been obsessed, if you will, with China for quite a long time now — and its military modernization, what that implies for the US and for security,” said Kendall, an Army veteran who has had a long career in the Pentagon, including serving as the department’s acquisition executive during the Obama administration.
“One of the things I’ve gotten back up to speed on since I came back was our intelligence on what the Chinese are doing with their modernization programs,” he added. “They’re moving faster than I might have anticipated. So, we have a lot of work to do.”
What types of technologies have the potential to threaten China?
Kendall pointed to programs such as the F-35′s Block 4 upgrade, which will increase its computing power and add new weapons and sensors.
Advances in networked autonomous systems and artificial intelligence show promise, but haven’t been effectively implemented throughout the military — another potential problem to tackle, he said.
And then there are the classified programs the Air Force is working on.
“We’ve got a few things that are in the pipeline that have not been revealed to the public yet, that I can’t talk about,” Kendall said. “One that has been revealed in part is the B-21 bomber. I think that’s going to be something that will be intimidating, it’s going to be very capable. And there are a few others like that that are coming down the pipeline. … But I think we have to be continuously thinking about other things that will be intimidating to our future enemies.”
‘Death by a thousand cuts’
As head of the Department of the Air Force, Kendall will oversee a $207 billion budget for the Space Force and Air Force (also included in that sum is a $38 billion “pass through” fund controlled by other government agencies). Even with defense budgets projected to remain flat throughout the Biden administration, Kendall said the department can achieve its mission.
“If we’re allowed to do the things we need to do, we can live within the types of top lines that we’re talking about,” he said. “But when you’re hamstrung by the fact that you can’t divest bases you don’t need [and] you can’t divest aircraft you don’t need, you can’t take the steps that you need to modernize.”
It’s a problem very familiar to Kendall.
During the Obama and Trump administrations, the Air Force attempted to free up funding for emerging technologies — next-generation aircraft, artificial intelligence, all-domain command and control, and autonomous systems, to name a few priorities — by shedding older aircraft.
The service saw limited success, as Congress wholly rebuffed plans to retire entire fleets like the A-10, U-2 spyplane and RQ-4 Global Hawk multiple times from FY14 through FY17.
In recent years, the Air Force has opted to propose more piecemeal divestments, and Congress has allowed the service to retire a limited number of B-1 bombers, KC-10 tankers, RQ-4 Global Hawks and other aircraft — which Kendall termed “death by a thousand cuts” that has failed to result in real savings.
Kendall signaled he may support a return to the full-fleet divestment proposals.
“Just on pure economics, it’s often better to get rid of an entire fleet,” he said. “There’s a fixed cost associated with each fleet. And then on top of that, there’s a variable cost associated with how many you have. And you can’t get rid of that fixed cost unless you get rid of all of them.”
However, he acknowledged any proposal for cuts to the Air Force’s inventory needs buy-in from lawmakers.
One idea Kendall has been floating to members and staffers on Capitol Hill is the possibility of bundling proposed divestments together in a single, mutually-agreed upon package so that the Air Force is able to make cuts without “hav[ing] to go fight individually with every district and state for a divestment that we might want to make,” he said.
The idea is still in its infancy, and Kendall added that he will seek lawmakers’ input on how the Air Force can make aircraft retirements more politically palatable and minimize the impact on local jobs and communities.
“Some places we won’t be able to do that,” he acknowledged. “But we’ve got to move forward. The security of the nation depends upon us doing it. And the alternative is a long, slow slide into a less capable force.”
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.