Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who took over as the department’s top civilian official July 28, contends his cold warrior mindset will serve the Air Force and Space Force well as they turn their focus to beating China and Russia in the 21st-century global influence wars.

He’ll also have to contend with the effects of withdrawing from America’s longtime involvement in the Middle East, and face the myriad social issues plaguing a stressed force. The former Pentagon acquisition boss will also shepherd the Air Force and Space Force through the congressional budgeting process that could stymie the services’ plans for change.

Kendall spoke with Military Times via Zoom on Aug. 13, about two weeks after being sworn into office.

What are your initial priorities in office? Are there mission areas or career fields that you believe are due for a revamp?

First and foremost is, raise everybody’s sense of the urgency of dealing with a peer competitor. … It became an assumption that the U.S. was the dominant military power. I was briefing a senior government official near the end of the Obama administration, but what I said at the time was that, “We’re the dominant military power until you get within about 1,000 miles of China, and that starts to change.” The reason it starts to change is that China has been very careful and strategic about fielding capabilities designed to keep us out of their part of the world. … We do have a serious challenger, and we’re at some risk, and we need to address that and focus on that and work together to achieve that objective.

There are some things that I think have atrophied. … One is our ability to do operations research and systems analysis. Another is our focus on engineering and technological threats and technological superiority. Those are two things that I’ll be making sure are healthy and trying to improve the capability of, so career fields … related to that would be of great interest to me.

We’ve also got the problem of the new Space Force and how to make that a success. We’ve got a department that traditionally has been a one-service department, which is now a two-service department. We’ll be taking a look at what we’ve done so far to address that reality, and seeing if some adjustments need to be made there. That’s a work in progress, but I think it’s off to a good start. I think there are a few tweaks that we may want to make as we define the different roles or the different parts of that organization overall, and decide what functions belong where and how they’re structured.

I want to look at management practices, and how we’re measuring our own performance in a whole bunch of areas, and see if we have good metrics in place and we’re tracking them and trying to correlate our policies and the things we do with the results that we’re getting so that we know if we’re moving in the right direction or not.

What changes to the fiscal 2023 budget request are you considering right now?

I am oriented on the high-end threat. …. If it doesn’t make China frightened of us, then we’ve got to really think carefully about why we’re doing it. … There’s a priority towards fully funding our strategic deterrent, we have to make sure we do that. So those are at the top of the list.

On the Space Force side, I think we are starting to move towards a very different type of posture in space because of the threats that we see there. The startup years ... tend to be relatively inexpensive compared to the years in which you’re procuring and fielding capability. It’s not close to us, necessarily, yet in terms of immediate years. But at some point, we have to get the order of battle that we need in space, and I think that’s going to require some increased funding in that area.

You’ve worked in Pentagon acquisition, in the defense industry and in the human rights arena. How might that combination of careers shape your time in the Air Force?

A long time ago, I made a decision that my life should be about defending freedom. You can do that in different ways, through the military, obviously, protecting our freedoms directly, and our allies and so on, and standing up for American values. The thing I love about serving my country is, this is a country that stands for human rights. We were the pioneers in that field -- we led the effort after World War II to publish the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So we’ve been a leader in that area for a long time, and our military is called on to defend those freedoms. I got a law degree so I could defend them in another form. That’s all very consistent to me. That perspective informs, certainly, my work in defense and always has.

The Air Force is moving away from its plan for 386 squadrons. What’s your current thinking on what kind of force structure the service needs?

We have to win the fights that we’re going to be asked to fight, and we have to defer the fights. Our first mission, of course, is deterrence -- strategic first, and then conventional. And the way you deter is by having capabilities. I believe that deterrence should rest on real capabilities that intimidate your adversaries, and that if you’re called upon to use them, that you can actually prevail. The thing that drives me more than anything else is focusing on the more stressing cases that we might be asked to operate in, and ensuring that we can achieve victory.

We’ve been spending an awful lot of time focusing on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, and that’s not where the strategic threat is. I think that’s well understood now. I’ve been pounding the drum about the seriousness of the pacing competitor in China, and also some of Russia’s modernization programs. So we’ve got to turn our attention back to that.

I started my career when we were engaged in another counterinsurgency, one in Vietnam. We turned from that, after Vietnam ended, to the Soviet Union, and I spent the next 20-odd years worried about that problem. So I have a long history of being in a mindset that you have a competitor who is going to be watching you and responding capably to what you do. You need to be ahead in that game, and take it very, very seriously.

You told the Senate Armed Services Committee you want to advance the Air Force’s conventional deterrence capabilities. How might you do that?

When I came back [to the Pentagon] in 2010, after being out for 15 years, I noticed that we were making a lot of requirements decisions essentially by intuition, as opposed to based on analysis. I think we need to strengthen our analysis capability in that regard, so that we make better informed decisions about our requirements. In general, I think we’ve got to improve our engineering capacity. That’s another thing that I think, to a certain extent, atrophied, and there are a lot of reasons for that. … We’re in a technological competition. Our potential enemies out there are designing systems that are intended to defeat the ones we’ve designed. And at the end of the day, that’s a job for engineers, informed by and working very closely with operational people. So I think we need to up our technical game quite a bit.

On the conventional side, technology’s moving fairly quickly there and it’s opening up a lot of opportunities for us and for our adversaries. … We’ve had advantages in areas like stealth, for example, for some time. We’re moving towards greater advantages, we hope, in network systems and in information warfare. Cyber warfare, cybersecurity is another area that moves very quickly at the pace of technology. Autonomy, artificial intelligence are all tools that are coming along, available to militaries to apply.

We’re going to be trying to figure out how to flesh out some of those [Third Offset] things and make them into meaningful operational capability. I’m also somewhat fixated on the idea of focusing on getting meaningful capability in the field. There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years about moving quickly. But you have to be careful, when you move quickly, about where you’re trying to get to, and keep that in mind. We’re not in a sprint, we’re in a marathon. What we really need to get to is a better generation of actual fielded capability. I’m going to be focused on the shortest path to that goal.

How do you plan to address the myriad social issues facing the Air Force and Space Force, from military housing to ideological extremism to suicide?

I will be talking to families, I will be talking to military people, airmen and guardians, particularly, to understand what their lives are like today. My own experience in the military was quite a long time ago. Things have changed a lot: what people are interested in and how they’re motivated, and what they expect has changed a lot. I want to develop a better feel for that by first-hand interactions, and I want to look at all of our programs that are designed to improve things in that area and see if they’re working or not.

I used to have a sign outside my door that says, “In God we trust, all others must bring data.” That applies to human resource management, just as much as it does to acquisition programs. We need to understand where we are, and we understand where we’re trying to get to, and then measure our ability to move forward. There are a number of programs in place. I will want to assess those, and I’ll look for creative ideas for other things that we can do to improve the quality of the lives and the performance of the people that come into the Air Force and Space Force. There’s a lot of work to be done there. It’s incremental in many cases, but you have to keep your eye on that as a primary focus of leadership throughout.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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