Kendall outlines China threat in stark detail, offers blueprint for effective response

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  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Mixing historical cautions with stark but informed assessments, Department of the Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall presented a detailed tutorial Sept. 11 for why China is America’s preeminent security threat and why the Air Force and Space Force must modernize and adapt quickly to ensure the nation’s security and interests are protected.

While Kendall’s 30-minute keynote address to the Air & Space Forces Association’s 2023 Air, Space & Cyber Conference was like previous speeches in its broad themes, his remarks Monday went into a stark and more detailed direction about China’s evolution and what it means in today’s world than he has previously.

“We must be ready for a kind of war we have no modern experience with,” Kendall said.

The observation was especially powerful since his speech came on the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 attack, which set the stage for the nation’s security focus on terrorism. Kendall and other military leaders say that posture must be radically adapted to a new focus on competition among “great powers.”

“The threat of attack from violent extremist organizations still exists, and we will address those threats as they occur. But China is by far our pacing challenge,” Kendall said.

Kendall also took aim at Congress, urging it to overcome a blockade on confirming all military nominations, pass a full-year budget and avoid gridlock that could lead to the government shutting down.

“As we look out to the next weeks and months, we urge you to give us the authorizations, appropriations and confirmations that it is your duty to provide for our military,” he said.

As turbulent as today’s security environment is, Kendall stressed that “war is not inevitable.”

“Our job is to deter that war and to be ready to win if it occurs,” Kendall said. “We’re all talking about the fact that the Air and Space Forces must change, or we could fail to prevent and might even lose a war.”

“China has been reoptimizing its forces for great power competition and to prevail against the U.S. in the Western Pacific for over 20 years. China has been building a military capability specifically designed to achieve their national goals and to do so if opposed by the United States,” he said.

To support that claim, Kendall noted that China “has created two new military services,” including a Rocket Force specifically designed “to attack America’s high-value assets, aircraft carriers, forward airfields and key C2 and logistics nodes.”

The second service, known as “Strategic Support Forces,” are designed and equipped “to achieve information dominance in the space and cyber domains.”

Kendall’s remarks at AFA echoed those he distributed across the entire Air Force and Space Force on Sept. 5 in a memo urging a faster and more focused commitment to putting place his Operational Imperatives that are specifically designed to meet the challenges posed by China and, to a lesser extent, Russia and North Korea.

“It has become clear to the entire senior leadership team that we are not optimized for great power competition,” the memo said. “… Accordingly, we will conduct a major initiative over the next several months to identify and implement the changes needed to meet our pacing challenge. This initiative will involve a comprehensive look at all aspects of how we organize, train and equip the Air Force and Space Force.”

The dangerous pivot point, he said in his keynote, is Taiwan. And just as Russia’s interest in Ukraine triggered the first full-scale war in Europe since World War II, China’s interest in Taiwan and its reconfigured military are cause for concern.

“Imagine that it’s January 2021, and you’re assessing the risk of Russia invading Ukraine and compare that to the risk you see today of an attack on Taiwan by China over the next several years,” Kendall said after asking the audience to take part in a “thought experiment.”

In terms that are the most stark and direct since he became secretary, Kendall described the consequences should the U.S. and allies not fully appreciate – and respond to – circumstances in the Indo-Pacific.

“If our power projection capability and capacity are not adequate to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan or elsewhere, war could occur. If it does, and we cannot prevail, the results could cast a long shadow,” he said.

In response, Kendall devised his seven Operational Imperatives that work in tandem with the National Security Strategy to reshape the Air Force and Space Force to meet the challenges posed by China and other adversaries.

Kendall admitted that the record so far on those efforts is mixed. “Despite my impatience, I feel that we have made a good start on the modernization front and that our way forward is now well defined.”

In other areas, however, “DAF senior leadership team and I are not as comfortable.”

Specifically, he said: “The Air Force and Space Force are incredibly capable, but we need to reoptimize the department for greater power projection and for great power competition. The war we need to be most ready for, if we want to optimize our readiness to deter or respond to the pacing challenge, is not the type of conflict we have been focused on for many years.”

“… We need to examine all aspects of how the Department of the Air Force is structured and operates and be open to major changes that reflect the requirements of the National Defense Strategy to deter and, if necessary, prevail against China or Russia,” he said. “We must ensure that the Air Force and Space Force are optimized to provide integrated deterrence, support campaigning, and ensure enduring advantage.”

Difficult as the challenges are, Kendall said the response by the Department of the Air Force, along with allies, partners and the entire government is united and focused.

Despite the threat, China “will fail,” Kendall said.

Directing his comments to Airmen and Guardians, Kendall said: “It is your initiative, professionalism and dedication that gives us our enduring competitive advantage. They will fail because they cannot copy or duplicate the initiative, professionalism, and the dedication that I see in you every day.”