Kendall’s first trip highlights Air and Space Force roles in responding to China, strategic competitors

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall didn’t as much foreshadow his motivation as leader of the Air and Space Forces as broadcast it in large, bright neon letters. “We achieve deterrence by having a strong enough force that the potential enemy is afraid of us. That’s my job; to give you and all your teammates the things they need to send a message to China that going to war would be a really bad idea,” he said to Airmen and Guardians at a town hall Aug. 17 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

The base, which is headquarters for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and Pacific Air Forces, was the first stop on Kendall’s first official trip as Secretary. It was no random choice. Nor was it an accident that it came less than a month into his tenure.

“You’re out here, serving as Airmen and Guardians, on the frontline of the theater that’s going to determine the strategic future of our government, of our way of life, of democracy itself, I think,” he continued.

The week-long trip in Hawaii (with a brief stop at
Travis Air Force Base, California en route), then Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado, and finally Offutt AFB, Nebraska, was designed to expose Kendall to more granular operational details, and to hear opinions and experiences on a wide array of issues from Airmen, Guardians and senior leaders. Yet, the dominant thread connecting all of it was how to configure the Air and Space Forces to meet growing challenges presented by China’s military expansion.

Kendall explained it this way during his town hall. “My job is to make sure combatant commanders of today ⁠— and in the future ⁠— have the forces they need to win.”

How best to shape the Air and Space Forces to meet the emerging threats while meshing with other services, partners and allies, however, is a question that is still evolving. Kendall said the trip was designed to refine his thinking and to hear directly from commanders in highly classified briefings what they are doing now, what they need and what they believe the future demands will be.

In broad strokes, Kendall said what he learned from the trip reinforced his view that the Air and Space Forces must move fast but with analytical rigor to give the clarity necessary for senior leaders, as well as rank-and-file Airmen and Guardians, to appreciate evolving threats and challenges.

“There’s a general recognition, I think, of the threat that China potentially poses to the United States. We’re not back in the Cold War. It’s not the same,” Kendall told the Airman and Guardians at the town hall. “But we are back into a serious fight with a serious competitor. And I think we have, to some extent, lost our corporate memory about that.”

Kendall’s perspective is not unique.

Senior policy and military leaders across the White House, Pentagon and beyond have highlighted China, and to a lesser extent, Russia, as the United States’ “pacing challenge” that dictates many of the policies, practices, spending and operational decisions across the Department of Defense.

At Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Kendall had briefings on China as well as what the Indo-Pacific theater might be like in 2030. He toured the 613th Air Operations Center and had a “listening session” lunch with Airmen and Guardians.

At Peterson SFB, he met commanders and senior leaders attached to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or
NORAD, the joint U.S.-Canada operation responsible for aerospace warning and aerospace control across North America. He also met with leaders of U.S. Northern Command, another major command responsible for protecting the homeland by providing “command and control of Department of Defense homeland defense efforts and to coordinate defense support of civil authorities.”

He also received briefings from another major operation at Peterson SFB ⁠— U.S. Space Command.

“The ability to operate in space is essential to deterrence. There’s no question about that in my mind. Without the capabilities the Space Force brings, the Air Force and all the rest of the services are going to have a very hard time doing their missions,” he said.

While at Offutt AFB, he received five hours of briefings on nuclear deterrence, modernization, command and control and other related topics from senior commanders at U.S. Strategic Command.

Sprinkled into every stop were listening sessions with Airmen and Guardians. He heard concerns during those sessions about mental health and housing, retention, the coronavirus, cyber warfare, Afghanistan, and how Airmen and Guardians fit into larger strategic goals.

“Mental health is health. We have to take that just as much into consideration as physical health,” he said in response to one question. He also urged Airmen and Guardians to get vaccinated against
COVID-19. “If there’s one message I’d like to give to you today, it’s, if you’re not vaccinated, please get vaccinated.”

“I did get a very good sense of our current operational planning and thoughts about the various theaters,” Kendall said when asked to summarize the trip. “I heard the strategic point of view at STRATCOM, the defense of the United States point of view from NORTHCOM, the Pacific point of view from Indo-Pacom, and the status of our efforts in space from Space Command in Colorado.

That gave me a much better feel for what my customers [the combatant commands] are worried about and about the kind of tools they need to address the problems they’re dealing with today and the problems they’ll face a few years down the road,” he said.

There was general agreement, he said, about the threats posed by China and other “strategic competitors” such as Russia.

At the same time, he warned that the focus cannot waver.

“If I were totally comfortable with our capabilities relative to those of our adversaries, I wouldn’t be here,” Kendall admitted, noting that he left retirement to step back into public service largely to help the nation respond to the new and complicated threats to national security.

 “I saw a lot of great people doing great work, and I’m very proud of the people and what they’re doing out there. That doesn’t mean we don’t have things we have to address,” he said.

At every stop, Kendall repeated his “One Team, One Fight” approach to the job. That term ⁠— broadly defined to include not only the Air and Space Forces, but other services, government agencies, partners and allies ⁠— embodies what he says is the essential operating approach to meet the challenges posed by China and Russia.

“It’s a privilege and an honor to wear this uniform and the country is depending on you,” Kendall said during the JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam town hall, adding “the competitors we have now, both of them, China and Russia, are formidable.”

“I have a little aphorism I use, a little saying, ‘One Team, One Fight.’ It’s an old Army saying from many, many years ago. It represents where we need to be. We need to be focused. We need to work together, we need to be focused on the problem that we have. … There’s strength in unity and divided we will fall. That’s pretty simple,” he said.