Kendall: Political Loyalty To Old Aircraft Hurts Security

Frank Kendall
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—The U.S. Air Force recently submitted its pre-decisional fiscal 2023 budget to Pentagon leadership, and that plan is expected to be the Biden administration’s first step to overhaul the service to face a growing threat from China. 

But that plan needs approval on Capitol Hill, and Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall knows that he has a lot of convincing to do. 

“I have one request of the Congress,” Kendall said during a Sept. 20 speech at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “Help us to focus on the one fight, the strategic competitive fight that we must win.”

The budget request is in line with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s guidance to acquire capabilities that will help the Air Force’s posture against China, but does not comply “with every piece of direction” from Congress, which is overly focused on keeping aircraft that “we no longer need,” Kendall said.

“We will not succeed against a well-resourced and strategic competitor if we insist on keeping every legacy system we have,” Kendall said. “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.”

Kendall said he returned to the Pentagon after four years away to lead the Air Force largely because of China’s military modernization. In the lead up to his confirmation hearing this spring, lawmakers agreed with him about the threat from Beijing but immediately said they would not support budgetary decisions to make the Air Force better fit for that fight, he said.

“Our democracy and our values are a great strategic advantage. They make the United States an attractive partner, but all politics are local and our politics can be counterproductive to national security,” Kendall said. “It was a frequent occurrence during my confirmation process to have a senator agree with me about the significance of 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, MQ-9s in that senator’s state  be retired.”

Kendall said he will soon head to Capitol Hill to give lawmakers classified briefings on the emerging Chinese threat, which will outline that the changes need to start as soon as possible with the 2023 budget.

“Several years ago, my message to members of Congress and to anyone who would listen was that we are running out of time,” Kendall said. “Today we are out of time.”

Kendall said he is looking at “creative solutions” to convince Congress to allow force structure cuts. For example, a Base Realignment and Closure-type Congressional process to review and approve fleet retirements.

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.