“We Have a More Formidable Challenger Now,” Air Force Chief Says of Pivot to Asia

Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) — Fresh off the first steps of reorienting the armed service he leads to bolster defense in the Asia-Pacific region, US Air Force secretary Frank Kendall III was up front about what America lacks in the region.

“We have bilateral agreements with partners in Asia, but no Asian NATO,” he said.

The United States doesn’t train to move large amounts of troops, material, and aircraft to the Pacific in the case of a crisis, as it practiced regularly during the Cold War in Europe, he explained.

“And we have no tactical nuclear weapons in the Asia-Pacific [region], Kendall said. “We have to come to grips with all of this, and we’re just starting.”

Kendall spoke at the Hoover Institution on May 21 as part of an event cosponsored with Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation on great-power competition with China.

He said China is building and, in some ways, customizing its capabilities to target America’s legacy means of power projection, including aircraft carriers, satellites, airbases, and command-and-control infrastructure.

He said that while the United States and Russia have decreased their nuclear stockpiles significantly over the past several decades, the Chinese are adding to theirs and will possibly reach a level of one thousand warheads in service by 2030.

“China’s moving to increase this, so we will have three major nuclear players going forward.”

Considering the growth in its nuclear arsenal, its custom tailoring of weapons to defeat instruments of US power projection, and its aggressiveness in space, Kendall, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, reflected on how China’s approach differs from what he observed when commanding air defense assets in West Germany during the Cold War.

I am more worried about this than I was from the threat of the Soviets during the Cold War,” Kendall said.

Kendall also spoke of the 2021 test by China of a fractional order bombardment vehicle, which demonstrated the ability for a warhead to be delivered by hypersonic glide vehicle into low Earth orbit and then reenter into the atmosphere at any angle of choice, rendering US interception very difficult.

In response to this, Kendall said, the air force identified seven operational imperatives to counter China. They are to:

  • deploy stronger, more numerous, and more offensive-oriented satellites in space;
  • enhance integration of command-and-control efforts in the Pacific theater;
  • achieve more advanced capabilities in targeting fast-moving threats such as hypersonic missiles;
  • develop new weapons platforms and more autonomous ones that can communicate with one another in flight;
  • better fortify US airfields in the Pacific;
  • develop more long-range bombers such as the B-21, which recently had its first flight; and
  • harden all US infrastructure against cyberattacks.

Kendall put the cost of these efforts at $100 billion over five years and said Congress has already approved the first $40 billion of this effort.

Even though the air force is moving to make these improvements, Kendall stressed they are meant to deter China, not draw them into confrontation or escalate tensions.

But miscommunications—and escalation—are always possible. He said that he believes the Chinese don’t fully understand what would happen if they targeted or destroyed a US satellite.

“[The] Chinese don’t understand how destabilizing some of their efforts are. They don’t realize how serious we take those items.”

Also concerning to Kendall was the polarized political environment at home. “Our adversaries see the division within this country, and they are working to expand it,” he said. “They’ve been too successful.”

Comparing this climate with the past, he recalled, “During the Vietnam period, I wore a uniform and I had very nasty things said to me. We had a draft. But it was not nearly as polarized as where we are today. We need to figure out a way to narrow that gap or we will struggle to compete with China.”

Following his keynote, Kendall participated in an engaging panel discussion, War Is Not Inevitable, on leveraging a free and open society to ensure credible deterrence in an era of great-power competition.

The panel was moderated by Hoover research fellow Joe Felter with panel members including Hoover senior fellow Philip Zelikow, Congressman Mike Gallagher, and Freeman-Spogli Institute fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro. Over lunch, leading defense technologists, investors, personnel of the Defense Innovation Unit (Department of Defense), and academics from Hoover and across Stanford University met with Kendall to discuss challenges and opportunities in developing and adopting critical defense technologies in the current geopolitical climate. He closed the day by meeting with students enrolled in Stanford’s defense innovation course Hacking for Defense and student teams participating the Defense Innovation Scholars program hosted by the Gordian Knot Center.

US Air Force secretary Frank Kendall speaks to students and academics in Stauffer Auditorium at the Hoover Institution on May 21.

Attendees listen as US Air Force secretary Frank Kendall speaks about the response to China’s rise in Stauffer Auditorium at the Hoover Institution on May 21.

US Air Force secretary Frank Kendall speaks to students and academics in Stauffer Auditorium at the Hoover Institution on May 21.

Sec. Frank Kendall III poses with Stanford students enrolled in defense innovation courses on May 21, 2024.

US Air Force secretary Frank Kendall III participates in the War Is Not Inevitable panel with Hoover fellows and scholars from the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation on May 21, 2024.

Hoover senior fellow Michael Boskin speaks Sec. Frank Kendall III on May 21, 2024.

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May 30 2024