Frank Kendall told the Senate Armed Services Committee May 25 that if he is confirmed as the 26th Secretary of the Air Force he will continue reshaping the Air and Space forces to confront near-peer adversaries such as China, nurture the Space Force’s successful evolution and ensure that Airmen, Guardians and their families are well served.
“If confirmed, my priorities would be straightforward and mirror precisely those articulated by Secretary of Defense (Lloyd) Austin as they apply to the Department of the Air Force – taking care of our people, mission performance, and building teams. Our military is people first and foremost,” he told the committee.
“With regard to mission performance, I believe the range and severity of the threats that we face and will face, the rapid pace of technological innovation, and the need to rapidly harness that technology in new operational concepts demands a sense of urgency and a like focus on getting our choices right,” he said.
An important part of that effort, Kendall said, is ensuring that the United States can operate in, and defend space, calling the still nascent U.S. Space Force “a critical contributor to our national security. If confirmed, I’ll be honored to have a role in making it a success.”
Also important, he said, is fully understanding and recognizing China’s rapid advances and ensuring that the Air and Space forces succeed in meeting them.
“There is general consensus that China is the pacing threat,” Kendall said, using the term for defining a leading challenger to U.S. security.
Across nearly three hours of a hearing that was both polite and relaxed, SASC Chairman, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), praised Kendall for having “a wealth of experience in aerospace and defense policy spanning several decades.” He also complimented Kendall for returning to public service after holding high-level positions in the Defense Department, most recently during the Obama administration.
That experience is important, Reed said, noting that “if confirmed as Secretary of the Air Force, you will lead the service during a major transformation as we strengthen our ability to deal with near-peer competitors. In addition to balancing the size and modernization of the Air Force, you must also continue to implement guidance establishing a Space Force.
“After two decades of high operating tempo and continuous overseas deployments, readiness remains a challenge,” Reed said. “The next secretary’s efforts in improving the force structure and support to our Airmen will be crucial.”
Kendall’s session before the committee was his first formal appearance on Capitol Hill since being nominated last month by President Biden to be the Department of the Air Force’s highest-ranking civilian leader. He appeared alongside two other nominees for senior Department of Defense positions – Susanna Blume to be director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation for the Department and Heidi Shyu to be Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.
Kendall is hardly unknown to senators, however, having served in a number of senior positions for the Department of Defense, including as the Pentagon’s No. 3 official for four years during the Obama administration.
Like Reed, the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, acknowledged Kendall’s experience and also the scope of the challenge ahead.
“Our days of air power dominance are long gone,” Inhofe said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
In his testimony and in response to questions, Kendall presented a philosophy for the job as the highest-ranking civilian leader of the Air and Space forces reflecting a mixture of well-established priorities, such as shifting focus to confront China and Russia. He also emphasized at several points during the hearing that, “the Air and Space forces aren’t just equipment and concepts of operation.”
“At its heart, they are the people who operate, create, and support those things. We have to do everything we can to ensure that our people have the training, the equipment, and the support they need to do their jobs, and we have to ensure that they can do those jobs in an environment that treats everyone with dignity and respect and maximizes their potential to grow and serve the nation,” he said.
He pledged to look closely at the progress of existing efforts to improve base housing and to fostering a fair and independent “command climate” relating to sexual abuse. In response to a question about racial disparities across the Air and Space forces identified in a recent report from the service’s inspector general, Kendall said, “It does concern me” and pledged to work hard to attack inequality.
Kendall was asked questions on topics ranging from the Department’s plans for nuclear modernization, how to control the costs of operating the F-35 (Lightning II) fighter and plans for addressing problems associated with the newest tanker, the KC-46 (Pegasus). Like previous nominees, Kendall was asked about the future of the A-10 (Thunderbolt II).
When asked if he would lobby for a larger budget in the next fiscal year, Kendall said he would urge a spending plan that “is adequate for meeting the requirements of the NDS.” The NDS, or National Defense Strategy, is the overarching national security blueprint issued in 2018 for protecting the nation and its interests.
He told the committee that driving down the F-35’s “sustainment costs” is an important goal and one that will attract his early attention if confirmed. He likewise said similar attention will be devoted to solving development problems that have slowed the KC-46’s utilization. And like other successful but older systems and planes, Kendall acknowledged the long-standing performance of the A-10 but said the Air Force must make difficult decisions to balance the use of “legacy” systems while also allowing the introduction of newer aircraft and other hardware.
He was asked about the criteria used for selecting bases to his assessment of the future of major training areas such as the Nevada Test and Training Range and the value of Alaska to the nation’s defense to how the Department of the Air Force is responding to climate change, among others.
Kendall said that the Air and Space forces should understand the effect of climate change. “It should be a consideration, absolutely,” he said.
Given his previous service and long history in defense issues, Kendall said he was aware of, or directly familiar with, nearly every issue raised to him by senators. His connection with military service is indeed both deep and varied.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, Kendall served 10 years on active duty in the Army, a tenure that also included a stint teaching engineering at West Point. Kendall spent time in the Pentagon as director of the tactical warfare program before moving to become assistant deputy undersecretary for Strategic Defense Systems. Kendall also worked in the private sector in defense-related jobs, most notably as Raytheon’s vice president of engineering during the mid-1990s.
In addition to graduating from West Point, Kendall earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from The California Institute of Technology. He earned his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center as well as an MBA from C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University.
In other Pentagon jobs, Kendall was director of tactical warfare programs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and was assistant deputy undersecretary for Strategic Defense Systems.
Kendall’s experience as Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics from 2012 to 2016 is where he gained notoriety as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer.
In that job, he was responsible “for all matters pertaining to acquisition; research and engineering; developmental testing; contract administration; logistics and materiel readiness; installations and environment; operational energy; chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons; the acquisition workforce; and the defense industrial base.”
While holding that job, the No. 3 position in the Pentagon, Kendall pushed reforms for the way weapons are purchased. He wrote a series of “Better Buying Power” initiatives aimed at reforming the acquisition process to make it more agile.