SecAF Kendall AFA Warfare Symposium Q&A: Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition

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  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall sat down with retired Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, AFA president and chief executive officer, for a “Fireside Chat” to close out the AFA Warfare Symposium Feb. 14 on the same note that it started, with a look at how the services will operate in an era of Great Power Competition.

The Q&A-style discussion addressed key takeaways from the reoptimization announcement, how the Department of the Air Force will address resourcing issues and breaking through barriers to streamline change.

A recap of the discussion can be found below: 

Airmen and Guardians are still wrapping their brains around what exactly all this change means for them. What do you think are the changes our Airmen and Guardians will feel the most, and what changes will be most apparent?

There are a lot of things that will affect us down at the unit level. It won’t happen overnight, but I think it’s going to happen reasonably quickly. We are going to orient our operational units on being ready for the fight we might have to be in at any time, and the leaders in charge of commanding those organizations are going to be tasked with it. Start thinking now about what we need to do to be more ready and do it. The conflict can happen at any time, and we need to be as ready as we possibly can. We’re going to be making some changes to how units are set up and all the things that units need to deploy. We’re also going to look at our garrisons and make sure they’re set up like they need to be. You’re going to see opportunities open up for career paths like tech tracks and warrant officers for a small subset of the force. In general, you’re going to see your training orient more on things you need to be effective in a Great Power Competition. We’re going to minimize people having to move, and we’re going to minimize cost, but we’re going to move out pretty quickly. So, buckle your seatbelt, don’t sit still, and go ahead and move forward. We don’t have any time to waste.

China aims to be able to take Taiwan one way or the other by 2027. Is there possibly a risk that restructuring could cost us readiness in the near term?

I don’t think so. We can maintain our readiness while doing this transition. I don’t see any fundamental impact on the fighting force. There shouldn’t be. The goal is to as quickly as possible, get to a better posture.

General Saltzman is introducing Space Futures Command. How is that similar or different from Army Futures Command?

Let me contrast the three. The Air Force, the Space Force, and the Army. I’ve spent 50 years listening to arguments on whether requirements come before technology or vice versa. It’s an irrelevant conversation. Basically, the two have to work together as a team. I am a big fan of extreme teaming, and I’m also a big fan of having a balance between the different elements to try and get better solutions. The two have to work very closely together. I think the Army tipped too close to the operations side. The futures command of the Space Force is going to be an integrated organization that has that integrated perspective and will bring the operations and technology sides of the conversation together in one organization. On the Air Force side, we’re doing it a little differently. We’re going to have Integrated Capabilities Command that’s going to be operator-commanded. It will be a three-star. They’re going to be working to get to the best possible solutions for the entire department. There’s a healthy tension in this if it’s done right, you’ve got to bring the two together. Having an operational and a technological lead is something we’re going to try to institutionalize throughout the system.

Not surprisingly, the decision to bring back warrant officers in limited career fields has sparked a lot of interest. Could we get more on your vision as to what warrant officers will bring to the fight?

In the last few years, we’ve had 100 people leave the Air Force to go be warrant officers in another service, in cyber and IT, which is why we need warrant officers. Somebody else made the comment that the thing warrant officers can provide you with are people who are very technically proficient, and they stay current all the time; that’s all they’re going to do. They’re the trainers and the mentors in their units, both for other officers and the enlisted members. It gives us technical continuity, and you don’t get that unless you stay in that field. I think there’s a great opportunity there. We’re going to do it with cyber and IT first, the operational need there is the greatest. At some point, we’ll think about if there are other fields where it makes sense, but for now, our focus is on getting cyber and IT ready.

We’ve all experienced the frozen middle the great and slow bureaucracy. How are you going to break through that barrier with so many changes all at once?

It’s hugely important. Life at the Pentagon tends to be a team sport, and one team, one fight applies to the Department of the Air Force all working with others who are stakeholders, the joint staff; you’ve got to keep their interests in mind, and you have to communicate with them effectively to be successful. I learned a long time ago that you don’t get anything done on your own by forcing things through. You get things done by informing people, bringing them along, explaining to them what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and getting their buy-in and support. We were hugely successful with the operational imperatives work. Make the case for what you need and show all the work you need to do to be successful. Building teams, teamwork, and explaining what you need to do works. The people we’re dealing with want to do the right thing, you just need to persuade them that what you want to do is the right thing.

Integrated Capabilities Command has been needed for a long time. Can you talk a bit more about your thoughts on that?

I think it’s important for organizations to have clear missions. Our forces that are designed to be ready to fight now; their leadership needs to focus on that. We need our readiness commands to focus on readiness. We need a capability that works together to achieve the overall mission. By putting this together, we can have an organization that’s focused on that. We need to be aware of the fact that we’re in a long-term competition. We have to not only have ready forces today, but we need people building a pipeline to have those capabilities over time, and we need to make sure that those resources devoted to that are run efficiently.

As you’ve traveled around and met Airmen from AFCENT, PACAF and USAFE, what did you learn that you didn’t already know?

I think I increased my appreciation of the high quality of our force and the quality of the people, and particularly our enlisted people. Today’s force is dramatically different than the force of the past, and I would say it’s one of our greatest strengths.

Was there a base or a mission as you traveled around the world that informed you in the context of mission focus?

What I see is a lot of people who have their heads in the game and want to do better see the deficiencies that we have and are trying to do better. I see a lot of innovation going around. I don’t see it in a particular part of the force. I see it everywhere. I see it in nuclear forces, mobility forces, and our fighter forces. I see it wherever I go. We’re a high-quality organization, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. I think we’ve got all the raw materials we need to make the changes we talked about to prepare ourselves. Frankly, it’s all about deterrence. We don’t want a war, and if we’re really ready and the Chinese understand that, we’re not going to have one.

For our industry and national security counterparts, are you starting to see a stovepipe in the space and air industry?

There’s been a lot of conversations about that. I got to meet with several companies during this conference. Both from our traditional defense suppliers as well as a lot of new entrants that have been with us less time, there’s enormous intellectual capital there. We want the industry working with us to help solve our problems. It goes back to extreme teaming. It has to be done with the recognition that industry does have an incentive to make money; that’s what corporations do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about what we’re trying to do. They have tremendous technological talent. We need to bring all that together to help us make the best decisions and solutions. 

Could you bring together what the merging of air and space capabilities will look like?

I think the operational imperatives are designed to identify that and flesh it out and move us toward that. I think we’re in a race; we’ve got to go as quickly as we can. The other guys are moving toward it, too, trying to adapt technology more quickly. All the things we announced are designed around the underlying ideas of competitiveness and urgency. One of the central features of what we’re trying to do is an increased reliance on space-based capabilities. The Air Force and the whole joint force is going to become more reliant on the Space Force. We’re going to have a mix of capabilities and try to confront our adversaries with more than one problem, but space is going to be increasingly critical and decisive in a peer conflict.