A Progress Report On The USAF Secretary’s Top Priorities

U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall
Credit: U.S. Air Force

FARNBOROUGH—When U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall outlined his seven major priorities for shaping future Air Force operations, a first step was directly asking industry how they could help, with the aim of using this input to help form longer-term budget plans next year. 

Now that the service has collected and digested this industry feedback, Kendall says he has a clearer idea of what is possible and what programs are realistic in the near term, and this type of industry input should be used more often in military planning.

“That was a useful exercise,” Kendall said in an interview at the Farnborough International Airshow. “We got some pretty good information from people. We’re trying to get to an environment where we tap into the—I’ll call it the intellectual capital from industry—more as we sort through how to solve problems.” This approach is preferable to simply telling industry, “Here’s the [request for proposals], here’s the requirements,” he says.

In March, Kendall announced these top priorities: defining an “order of battle” for space operation; making the Advanced Battle Management System operational; developing a “family of systems” or loyal wingman for the Next Generation Air Dominance and the B-21 bomber; achieving moving target engagement at scale; defining resilient basing; and assessing how the Air Force will transition to a “wartime posture” in a conflict against a peer competitor.

The imperatives produced a corresponding request for information that was posted to industry, and Kendall appointed high-level officials to coordinate the planning ahead of building its fiscal 2024 five-year budget plan, known as the program objective memorandum (POM). Kendall pointed to his own experience in the military during the Cold War as a time when industry had more input in military planning.

“We used to work with the technical community in industry a lot more to stimulate creativity and innovation, and to get people to think about how to solve a problem as opposed to just how to deliver a product specified, so I’m trying to move back into more of that environment,” Kendall says. “The government has a certain amount of expertise, which is fine, but there’s a lot more intellectual capital available in the industry that way, and you just stimulate people’s creativity when you pose a problem and you ask people to think about it in novel ways to integrate new technologies.”

Kendall provided updates to three of the specific imperatives:

The Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems: This idea is gaining technical maturity, based on recent developments such as Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat in Australia, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg and DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution. Kendall says there has been “a lot of good work has been going on over the past few years” on the aircraft platform itself. The responses to the RFI also have focused more on the “family’ idea of the “family of systems”—what else would be included beyond the command platform. 

“There were clear, cost-effective possibilities for a family of systems associated with [tactical aircraft], that fighter-bomber kind of ranges,” Kendall says.

The B-21 family of systems: This idea has proven trickier, with less technology development for a large, high-end system that could keep up with the B-21 at longer ranges and with heavier payloads. While the service is not walking away from the idea, it is less mature than the NGAD proposal. There were other ideas from the industry’s responses that the service wants to use, Kendall said.

“It wasn’t as obvious that there were going to be the same kind of cost-effectiveness gains from having a collaborative combat aircraft go with the bombers as a wingman, but there were other things that did come out of that effort that we’re going to try to get going,” Kendall says.

Moving target indication at scale: The Air Force wants to move its ground-moving target indication mission away from the E-8C Joint Stars and into space, and eventually shift air-moving target indication to orbit as well. This idea has faced significant technological problems, making it seem far-fetched that a satellite could be powerful enough to stay on a target area and produce relevant targeting data.

Kendall says though he isn’t ready to talk publicly about much of this effort, the Air Force is working “very closely” on this idea with the National Reconnaissance Office, which is doing some “very, very relevant things that we can take advantage of.” Commercial industry also has relevant technologies, and there are “some other technologies that we have seen come out of some other sources that are very relevant for part of that problem,” he says.

“It’s not going to be single solutions for the AMTI/GMTI mission. It’s going to be mixes of things that work in concert, but I think we’ve got a pretty clear picture of how to move forward on that now,” Kendall says.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.