Less than two months into the job, the secretary of the Air Force has a simple request of Congress: Look past your parochial interests, and let us retire old aircraft.
Speaking Monday at the annual Air Force Association conference, Frank Kendall implored lawmakers to stop blocking the retirement of aircraft that won’t be very useful in a potential future fight simply because they are built or based in their home state or district.
“We will not succeed against a well-resourced and strategic competitor if we insist on keeping every legacy system we have,” Kendall said. “Our one team cannot win its one fight to deter China or Russia without the resources we need and a willingness to balance risk today to avoid much greater risk in the future.”
Kendall recalled that during his confirmation process, senators would agree with his assessment that countering China must be the service’s top priority but in the same breath insist that a particular platform must continue to be used and funded, whether the Air Force wants them or not.
Kendall rattled off a handful of platforms that fit that description: A-10 Warthogs, C-130 transports, KC-10 tankers, and MQ-9 Reaper drones.
“I do understand the political constraints here, and I am happy to work with Congress to find a better mechanism to make the changes we need, but we must move forward,” he said. “All politics are local, and our local politics can be counterproductive to national security.”
In recent years, the Defense Department has repeatedly submitted budget requests that leave out certain ships or aircraft, only to have Congress add them back to the final budget.
For their part, lawmakers are sometimes leery of mothballing weapons and equipment that still have service life left, particularly in favor of spending on some future capability that may or may not materialize.
Kendall, a West Point graduate who previously served as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer during the Obama administration, said that when he returned to government in 2010 after 15 years with industry, he was struck by how fast the Chinese were modernizing their weapons. Now, returning again after four years in the private sector, he feels that China is moving even faster, particularly in expanding its nuclear arsenal, he said.
Kendall said his July confirmation by the Senate was too late for him to have much input on the Air Force’s fiscal 2022 budget request, but he hinted that next year’s submission will look to retire a significant number of legacy systems.
“The costs of these aircraft are consuming precious resources we need for modernization,” he said.
Kendall declined to discuss specific programs that might be affected, but he did provide an update on the B-21 bomber, a next generation stealth aircraft being built by Northrop Grumman. The contractor is building five test versions at Air Force Plant 42, a classified manufacturing facility in Palmdale, Calif.