ORLANDO — The week-old Russian invasion of Ukraine has grabbed the world’s attention and caused many nations to rethink their defense priorities and commitments.

But Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at a conference in Orlando Thursday the U.S. military will retain its focus on China as the country’s top challenge.

“The Biden administration is about to release its National Security and National Defense strategies,” Kendall said in his keynote address at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, though he did not offer a time frame. “I don’t want to get ahead of that process, but you can be confident that despite current events, the pacing challenge remains China.”

Kendall said the strategies will emphasize the importance of alliances and partnerships as part of the Pentagon’s “integrated deterrence” concept.

“Russia and other threats will not be discounted,” Kendall said. “But China, with both regional and global ambitions, the resources to pursue them, and a repressive authoritarian system of government, will be our greatest strategic national security challenge.”

Although the Ukraine invasion hasn’t prompted a wholesale reorientation of how the military views top potential threats, Kendall said the military needs to remember “great power conflicts could happen, and could do so at any time.”

“In my view, [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin just made a very, very serious miscalculation,” Kendall said. “He severely underestimated the global reaction the invasion of Ukraine would provoke, he severely underestimated the will and courage of the Ukrainian people, and he overestimated the capability of his own military. Perhaps most importantly, he severely underestimated the reaction from both the U.S. and from our friends and allies.”

Kendall outlined seven “operational imperatives” the Air Force must adopt to modernize and better position itself to counter a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan or a Russian land assault on a NATO member.

Both scenarios would see high operational tempos and a large number of forces fighting, he said.

“These are not the types of problems the [Department of the Air Force] has been focused on since the Cold War ended, and especially not since 9/11,” Kendall said. “But as current events show, they are the types of problems we must be organized, equipped and ready for. Not some time in the future, but now.”

To be ready to meet those threats, Kendall said the Air Force must:

  • Ensure its structure of space-based services providing communications, intelligence, targeting, navigation and missile warning capabilities is “resilient enough to endure while under attack.”
  • Modernize its battle management structure so airmen can effectively process information needed to make quick decisions on the battlefield.
  • Improve its ability to identify moving targets in the air, on the ground and at sea, both in space and by modernizing “aging and vulnerable legacy systems” such as the E-3 Sentry, also known as the Airborne Warning and Control System or AWACS, and E-8 JSTARS, or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System. This would be necessary for situations like the Ukraine invasion, he said. And the battles could be decided in a matter of hours, similar to the D-Day invasion, instead of lengthy strategic bombing campaigns like the campaign carried out by the Eighth Air Force during World War II, he added.
  • Define the Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, program, which will include both a manned fighter with up to five less-expensive autonomous combat drone wingmen operating as a team, with an adjustable mix of sensors, weapons and other equipment.
  • Establish a system of resilient basing that relies less on established forward bases that are well-known to enemies — and vulnerable to massive assaults with hypersonic weapons and precision munitions — and more on the Agile Combat Employment concept of flexible satellite bases dispersed in a “hub-and-spoke” system.
  • Define how the in-development B-21 Raider bomber will have a family of systems, including the possible use of cheaper autonomous drones similar to the NGAD concept.
  • Improve the readiness of the Air Force and Space Force to allow swift shifts to a wartime posture against a major adversary. This will include the capability to mobilize and deploy forces and secure networks to allow that mobilization as quickly as possible.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Clint Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, and Space Force Lt. Gen. William Liquori, deputy chief of space operations, strategy, plans, programs, requirements and analysis, will lead the effort to make Kendall’s plans a priority on the operations side, Kendall said. Darlene Costello, principal deputy assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, will be in charge of acquisition and technology angles.

Kendall did not detail the upcoming fiscal 2023 budget request, but said it will be in “alignment” with the National Security and National Defense strategies and his seven imperatives.

Some of the longer-term changes for his plans won’t come until the fiscal 2024 submission, he added.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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