Biden Taps Frank Kendall To Be Air Force Secretary

Frank Kendall

Frank Kendall Susan Walsh/AP

Former Pentagon acquisition chief has relevant experience defining threats and modernization needs, colleagues say.

President Joe Biden will nominate Frank Kendall, a former top Defense Department official in the Obama administration, to be Air Force secretary, the White House announced Tuesday.

Kendall’s extensive experience in “a lot of the key areas the Air Force will have to deal with, now and in the future,” will make him “one of President Biden’s best appointments in the Department of Defense, without question,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general with long experience in defense policy.

Kendall also has the data bent that the Air Force has a penchant for. During his time as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Kendall “had that sign over the door, ‘I trust in God, but all others bring data,’” Punaro said. “He’s very factually oriented.”  

A West Point graduate, Kendall is credited with updating antiquated acquisition practices through his Better Buying Power initiative.

As Air Force Secretary, he would oversee a number of multi-billion dollar projects with checkered histories. There’s the KC-46 tanker: Boeing must redesign the refueling system and make modifications to the refueling boom before the plane is deemed ready for war. Then there's the high costs of flying and maintaining the F-35 stealth fighter, part of what prompted a review of just how many jets the Air Force can afford. The Air Force is reviewing the makeup of its entire tactical fleet.

Dan Grazier, a military fellow at the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, said Kendall will step in at a critical time for the F-35, as the weapons program nears a final decision on full-rate production

“Mr. Kendall brings a great deal of experience to the position, but he also has some baggage,” Grazier said, noting Kendall went to work for defense firm Leidos after leaving the Pentagon in 2017. Grazier also questioned whether Kendall would view the F-35 program with as much scrutiny as he did in 2012, when he called the program “acquisition malpractice.” 

“The F-35 program is in a holding pattern at the moment as it is still at least a year away from crossing the legal threshold for full-rate production,” Grazier said. “He [Kendall] wouldn't be the person to make that final decision in this role, but he would certainly be in a position to influence it. We can only hope that he retains some of his earlier skepticism and doesn't use his influence to rush even more flawed aircraft into production before the testing plan can be completed.”

Kendall would also oversee a high-profile, classified effort to build the warplane of the future, called Next-Generation Air Dominance. During his previous tenure at the Pentagon, Kendall sold the project to Congress.

“We expect that he will bring an engineer’s perspective to autonomous/attritable weapons, networks, and weapons mix and will seek data to inform those perspectives,” Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, wrote in a Tuesday note to clients. “We believe he recognizes that ‘quantity has a quality of its own’ and will be supportive of the development of new weapons/systems that harness technology to create more military mass.”

If quickly confirmed, Kendall could weigh in on the Pentagon’s opinion of Lockheed Martin’s plans to buy Aerojet Rocketdyne. The Federal Trade Commission is reviewing the acquisition and has extended its review, a signal that government regulators are scrutinizing the deal.

“He is likely to provide Air Force views on the Lockheed Martin-Aerojet Rocketdyne deal, which we presume he may not support,” Kendall said.

As the acquisition undersecretary, Kendall in 2015 expressed concern about consolidation within the defense industry when Lockheed purchased helicopter maker Sikorsky. Since then, there have been several mega mergers within the aerospace and defense sector.

Kendall is the second service secretary to be named by the White House, following its historic nomination earlier this month of Christine Wormuth to be Army Secretary. Depending on how quickly the White House sends the official nomination paperwork to the Senate and hearings take place, it could be June before either is in office, after the official drop of Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget request. 

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the timing of the nominations, even if they occur after the budget is out, “is about getting it right more than it is getting it fast.” 

“It’s not about trying to beat the clock on budget rollout,” he said at a briefing Tuesday. 

Defense News first reported Kendall would be nominated for Air Force secretary earlier Tuesday.