Frank Kendall, secretary of the US Air Force (USAF), says local politics threaten to weaken the service by burdening it with outdated aircraft.
Kendall, who was sworn into his role in August, lamented the perennial struggle of the US Department of Defense: convincing lawmakers to green-light scrapping old equipment and unimportant military bases – assets that bring economic benefits to their districts.
“It was a frequent occurrence during my confirmation process that a senator would agree with me about the significance of the Chinese threat, [yet] in the same breath 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. Nor could any base in his or her state ever be closed or lose manpower that would cause impact on the local economy.”
The USAF wants to upgrade its fleet by developing and buying newer and better aircraft. Without much growth in its budget it has to retire older aircraft to free funds for modernisation, however.
Examples of aircraft the USAF wants to prioritise are: Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters, Northrop Grumman B-21 stealth bombers and the Next-Generation Air Dominance aircraft, a top-secret in-development sixth-generation fighter. Because of their stealth characteristics, the service believes those aircraft would be more survivable in battles against sophisticated adversaries.
Older aircraft not only take away resources from better aircraft, but would likely be shot down by China during a conflict, argues Kendall. Beijing has invested heavily in building a modern air force and fielding sophisticated surface-to-air missile batteries over the past decade.
“We will not succeed against a well-resourced and strategic competitor, if we insist on keeping every legacy system we have,” he says.
Acknowledging that the USAF is not likely to get everything it wants, Kendall says he is willing to bargain.
“I’m happy to work with Congress to find a better mechanism to make the changes we need,” he says. “But we must move forward.”
Kendell, who was USAF under-secretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics from 2012 to 2017 during the presidency of Barack Obama, says the USA’s military strength relative to China has deteriorated over the past four years.
“When you see the [classified] specifics, I think it will make you open your eyes,” he says. “Several years ago, my message to members of Congress and to anyone who would listen was that we were running out of time. Today we are out of time.”