By Charles Pope, Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
/ Published August 12, 2021
First interview with the The Honorable Frank Kendall, the 26th Secretary of The Air Force. Produced by Air Force Television.
ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) -- Frank Kendall, freshly installed as the 26th Secretary of the Air Force, acknowledged during an Aug. 5 interview that confronting and solving hard problems energizes him.
“I enjoy working on hard problems; I enjoy working on complicated problems. I’m very fixed on making real progress,” said Kendall, who has more than 50 years of defense-related experience and was sworn into office July 28.
As the highest-ranking civilian leader of an organization with nearly 700,000 Airmen and Guardians and a budget request exceeding $173 billion, Kendall, a West Point graduate who also is an engineer and lawyer, and someone with a long and deep record of senior national security positions, will confront no shortage of issues that are both complicated and multi-layered.
And while each of the matters he’ll face will demand uniquely crafted analyses and considerations, Kendall says the over-arching philosophy guiding his actions and decision-making is captured in four words: “One team, one fight.”
“You’re going to hear that phrase a lot from me in a lot of different contexts,” he said of the need for unity of effort, not just across the Air and Space Forces but the entire military establishment as well as with allies and partners.
“The phrase, in my experience, originated in the Army. It comes out of a different era, a different time and a different service. But it’s applicable to our national security apparatus. It’s applicable to us as a country. … There are formidable challenges in the world and we need to work together to address them.”
Kendall’s outlook dovetails with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s call for “integrated deterrence,” which includes multi-domain and joint operations, new technologies and seamless cohesion among U.S. military services, national security organizations, and allies and partners.
“He talks about all the elements of power and all the elements of military power being able to work together toward a common objective,” Kendall said of Austin’s strategy. “We’ve got to focus on our integrated capabilities and supporting each other.”
That unity of effort, Kendall said, is important across the board but it is especially crucial in addressing the nation’s top security concern – the emergence of strategic competitors such as China, and to a lesser degree, Russia.
“China’s rise and China’s military modernization program, which I’ve been studying for over a decade, pose a real challenge to us,” he said. “And I think we have come to understand that the dominance we enjoyed at the end of the Cold War is not, as (Air Force Chief of Staff) Gen. Brown puts it, a birthright. We have to sustain our advantages and work hard to sustain them particularly against a capable, determined potential adversary.”
The “One Team, One Fight” philosophy will also guide Kendall as he tackles other issues too, he said. The challenges are both broad and varied, ranging from how to ensure that the mental health of Airmen and Guardians is maintained and how problems surrounding housing are identified and attacked, to how best to modernize the force within budget constraints and ensure the nascent Space Force’s continued evolution.
Even with his decades of experience, Kendall admitted that one of his first, and most important jobs, is simply to learn. “I need to get up to speed on the threats and where they are headed,” he said. “I need to understand our programs and where they are. Then I can look at our modernization [strategy] and whether it will get us to where we need to go as quickly as possible.”
His approach to making decisions, Kendall said, is clear-cut and deeply entrenched. “I’m a data-driven person. I will be looking at metrics to ensure that the forces in all aspects are healthy and doing well, and the trends are in the right direction,” he said.
At the same time, he has already formed fact-based conclusions on a few topics. One of the most prominent is the value of the Covid vaccine and the need to have the force vaccinated. “The data is very, very clear. Being vaccinated can save your life. It can save the lives of people around you,” he said during the interview.
“If I were to have one message today it would be, if you’re not vaccinated out there, get vaccinated. You can save your life and save the lives of people you love.” Kendall is also an advocate for both the Space Force and the F-35 Lightning II, the Air Force’s frontline fighter.
“I don’t blame people for wanting to be part of the Space Force” Kendall said. “If I were a young man or a young woman out there today I’d be very tempted by Space Force.”
As a senior Department of Defense procurement official during the Obama Administration, Kendall raised questions about the program that would eventually produce the F-35, the fifth-generation fighter that is the foundation for air superiority.
“We talk about protecting our Airmen; this aircraft gives them a tool already that is terrific,” he said. “It’s going to save a lot of lives and it also provides a deterrent value.”
At the same time, he acknowledges concerns from Congress and beyond about the costs to both purchase and maintain the airplane.
“Affordability is an issue. The place where we need to be focused most right now is sustainability. … From my perspective, introducing as much competition as possible can drive prices down and improving the design to increase reliability are the two things I would be focused on,” he said.
While Kendall in many respects has a traditional profile for a senior military leader, he also is an exception. In addition to his degree from West Point and Army career, his service in a senior Pentagon position and later working for major defense contractors, he also was active in efforts to improve and promote human rights. He worked, for example, with Amnesty International USA, and served as a member of the Board of Directors. He was an observer at Guantanamo for Human Rights First and he chaired the board of directors for Tahirih Justice Center.
While that history is atypical, Kendall says those jobs – and that life experience – mesh together.
“The thread that runs through my career perhaps more than any other, is dedication and passion for protecting the American way of life, and for protecting human rights more generally,” he said during the interview. “The reason I was inspired to go into the military in the first place and attend West Point and serve in the Army was the desire to defend freedom.
“And after the Cold War ended, I thought we had a chance to extend civil society through the rule of law. … I got involved in some human rights work and some human rights organizations because of that. Some people see that as inconsistent. I see it as totally consistent. That’s why we have a military, that’s what our men and women in uniform – our Airman and Guardians in particular now for me – are trying to protect. That’s what we fight for. And I think that’s a noble undertaking,” he said.
But now, the hard work lies ahead, Kendall said. If the Air and Space Forces, and by extension, the nation are to succeed, it must happen with unity and a mindset of “one team,” he said. “We are in a national, strategic, long-term contest with a formidable adversary,” Kendall said in response to a question about his main message to Airmen and Guardians.
“And what you do every day is important to that struggle. I’m very grateful for all our Airmen and Guardians for volunteering to commit to our military and I’ll do everything I can to give you to tools you need to do your jobs as effectively as possible.”