Reporting progress but conceding that “hard choices” remain, Department of the Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall offered a report card March 7 during a major address at the 2023 Air and Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium, emphasizing the need to modernize and reshape the Air Force and Space Force to confront China and other emerging powers.
While important to maintain – and sustain – current forces and capabilities, Kendall was blunt about what is needed to ensure the long-term security of the United States and its allies and to protect shared interests. He also was clear in what the Air Force and Space Force must do and why.
“We are united in our commitment to modernizing the Air and Space Forces and in achieving the transformation we must have to be competitive with our pacing challenge – China, China, China,” Kendall said at the top of his 24-minute address.
In evaluating choices and making decisions, “we have no choice but to prioritize the Air and Space Forces we must have to remain dominant in the future,” he told an audience of Airmen and Guardians, industry officials and senior government officials.
“The operational risks we have against our pacing challenge are increasing over time. Emphasizing the current force over the force of the future is a road to operational failure. The good news is that we are maintaining our current force at adequate levels of readiness. We are also continuing to divest older and less capable or relevant platforms as we increase mid-term capacity by acquiring aircraft currently in production at higher rates than previously planned. In general, our previously initiated programs are continuing as intended,” Kendall said.
But Kendall also said the department is not standing still, disclosing that in the budget proposal for fiscal year 2024, which is scheduled to be released next week, will include “close to 20 new efforts.”
Indeed, while Kendall’s remarks and those delivered by other senior Air Force leaders at the AFA’s semi-annual conference are always closely scrutinized, their comments this year carried additional weight because they came one week before the budget proposal for fiscal 2024 is scheduled for release. The budget, like the AFA remarks, give clues for the priorities and focus for the coming year.
“Unfortunately, we’re still a few days from releasing the budget, so I can’t be specific, but I can give you a general sense of what we’ve been able to include,” Kendall said, noting that, as before, the budget is broadly crafted to fulfill objectives outlined in his seven “Operational Imperatives.”
“In our posture statement and hearings last year, we told the Congress that hard choices lay ahead. We were right. We also told Congress that the DAF was using a list of seven operational imperatives to focus our work on defining and acquiring the Air Force and Space Force we need to respond to our pacing challenge. The operational imperative work has had a major impact on our FY24 budget,” Kendall said.
At the same time, he also highlighted some specifics. They include a program “we initiated to create a new missile warning and tracking architecture that addresses the full spectrum of missile threats, including hypersonics” along with moving forward on “efforts to define and fund the next generation of integrated Command, Control, Communications and Battle Management needed by both the Air and Space Force.”
He confirmed that the budget to be made public March 9 will include funding requests for the Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, sixth-generation fighter aircraft and the introduction of uncrewed Collaborative Combat Aircraft to provide affordable mass.
Collaborative Combat Aircraft, or CCAs, will number about 1,000, he said, and “will complement and enhance the performance of our crewed fighter force structure. They will not impact planned crewed fighter inventory. One way to think of CCAs is as remotely controlled versions of the targeting pods, electronic warfare pods, or weapons now carried under the wings of our crewed aircraft.”
Kendall confirmed that the budget request will focus as well on “hardening our forward bases and with the support structure needed for Agile Combat Employment, without having to wait for a development program. With timely investments, we can substantially improve our forward tactical air resilience. This effort has strong synergy with our integrated deterrence strategy, in both the western Pacific and in Europe.”
Also, as expected, the request will carry funds to further develop the B-21 Raider, next generation strike bomber.
“Our goal is to get it into production as quickly as possible, with acceptable concurrency risk,” he said.
Kendall also pointed out that in moving to fulfill the requirements of his Operational Imperatives, both the Air Force and Space Force are forced to confront new requirements triggered by the capabilities or peer competitors and the geographic challenges posed by the focus on the Indo-Pacific.
“Of particular concern is the survivability of our tankers, which have to be far enough forward to refuel fighters close enough to the threat that they can operate effectively,” Kendall said.
“Our preliminary assessment is that this will mandate a more survivable tanker that is not a derivative of a commercial aircraft. As a result, we have begun the effort to define the concept for this new capability, which will be competitively procured. One possibility is a blended wing body design. We intend to conduct an Analysis of Alternatives for this new platform, named Next Generation Aerial Support System (NGAS), in 2024,” he said.
Kendall closed his remarks with a plea based on a clear warning. “All the technology and money in the world will not compensate for a shortage of the dedicated professionals we need to perform our missions,” he said, noting that recruiting trends project a 10% shortfall.
“I’m deeply proud to be part of an organization that empowers and supports all of its people, embraces cutting-edge technology, and performs missions that will determine whether our future is bright and free, or not,” Kendall said, beseeching Airmen and Guardians to help spread the “positive message about military service to our young people.”
And in a direct message to the Total Force as well as Congress, Kendall emphasized again that delays in programs or budgets must be avoided.
“Time is an asset that can never be recovered or replaced. As our pacing challenge continues to modernize creatively and aggressively, we can’t afford to cede the advantage of time,” he said.