Frank Kendall could soon be the person to decide the future of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program–and with it the U.S. military.
Who Is Frank Kendall?
As President Joe Biden’s pick for Air Force secretary, Kendall is set to become the Air Force’s top civilian – and twenty-sixth to serve in the position – just as the service determines how many F-35 aircraft to buy, not only in the near term but over the lifespan of the program.
Kendall previously served in the Pentagon as its top weapons buyer during the Obama administration on the program and at the time expressed some harsh words for the program. He reportedly went so far as to describe the F-35 as a case of “acquisition malpractice.” However, Kendall took a far more neutral stance this week, where he expressed concerns about the sustainment costs and future upgrades of the F-35, but he also praised the capabilities of the Lightning II.
“The F-35 is the best tactical aircraft of its type in the world and will be so for quite some time,” the Air Force secretary nominee said at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing earlier this week. “It’s a complex, expensive weapon, unfortunately, but it is a dominant weapon when it goes up against earlier-generation aircraft.”
Kendall’s confirmation hearing coincided with the Air Force’s ongoing evaluation of its tactical aviation fleet, and whether it will follow through with the planned acquisition of 1,763 F-35As, the conventional takeoff and landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.
As DefenseNews reported this week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles ‘CQ’ Brown has said that the service may now seek out a low-cost, clean-sheet multirole fighter to replace its oldest F-16s — one of the platforms originally slated to be succeeded by the F-35.
F-35 Under Fire
It was just weeks ago reports suggested that the former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Will Roper – who served in the position during the last three years of the Trump administration – had recommended to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown as well as former Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord that the Pentagon should reduce the number of F-35 Lightning II jet aircraft purchased to just 800 in total.
Roper has not been alone in calling for a reduction of the F-35 fleet. The Hill reported that earlier this year, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he wanted to “stop throwing money down that particular rathole,” and further raised the prospect of political fights over whether to make cuts to the program in this year’s defense budget.
However, the program still has its supporters on Capitol Hill, and that has included Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
“It’s had problems, but there is no other aircraft that offers that capability and capacity of the F-35,” Inhofe said Tuesday according to The Hill. “Now, at least, that’s what we hear from the people who fly them.”
Even as lawmakers may be divided on the future of the program, Kendall has remained somewhat neutral. During his confirmation hearing, Kendall said he believed that buying additional F-35s will help drive down the sustainment costs, but he also said that he felt the Air Force needs an “affordable mix” of aircraft to meet the National Defense Strategy.
That likely means is that the F-35 will be part of it, just not the only part.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.