Air Force secretary nominee Kendall well versed in the challenges of space acquisitions
WASHINGTON — President Biden has nominated former top Pentagon acquisition official Frank Kendall to be secretary of the Air Force, the White House announced April 27. If confirmed, he will be the highest ranked civilian leader of both the Air Force and the Space Force.
Kendall’s selection was first reported by DefenseNews.
Currently an independent consultant, Kendall is a former U.S. Army officer and defense industry executive who served as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics during the Obama administration from 2012 until 2017.
Kendall led Pentagon acquisitions during a time of transition in the space industry as private-sector players like SpaceX disrupted the military launch market and satellite operators pushed DoD to buy commercial satcom services instead of buying customized satellites.
One of Kendall’s challenges with regard to space was figuring out how to replace the Russian RD-180 rocket engine used by United Launch Alliance to fly Air Force satellites. After Russia occupied Crimea, Congress moved to ban use of the RD-180 for military launches.
Deborah Lee James, who was secretary of the Air Force under Obama, said Kendall took deep interest in the engine issue and in space programs in general, and was concerned about making sure DoD had assured access to space.
“I think he will serve the Air Force extremely well given his background on major programs including space,” James told SpaceNews April 27.
The Air Force — and now the Space Force — are counting on ULA to introduce a new launch vehicle later this year that uses a domestic engine. Kendall as secretary of the Air Force would have to “push that over the finish line as well,” said James.
Kendall while at DoD was a proponent of competition in the launch market and credited SpaceX for starting a downward trend in the cost of space launch.
“Opening up launch to more than a single contractor was something that actually happened when Kendall was in charge,” James noted. “He was one of the leaders who pushed for increased access to space for more providers so that we could reduce the cost to the government.”
Kendall in 2016 spoke to the Washington Space Business Roundtable about DoD’s difficulties buying satellites at affordable prices and suggested it was time to consider transitioning to different architectures using commercially produced satellites.
Commercial space internet networks five years ago were in the early phases of design. Kendall said proliferated space systems, once they materialized, could give DoD more resilient alternatives to traditional big-ticket satellites.
James recalled that her and Kendall were frustrated by the cost overruns and schedule setbacks in the Air Force’s next-generation OCX ground system for GPS satellites. They came to the realization that DoD needed to change how it developed software and adopt Silicon Valley’s rapid development techniques.
“And that has really taken off in the last five years,” said James.
As the civilian leader of the Space Force, Kendall will oversee the standup of a new assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration office, and will have to work with Congress on proposed reforms the Space Force believes it needs to accelerate the procurement process.
James said Kendall’s deep knowledge of how the Pentagon works and how Congress works will be hugely helpful in moving the reorganization forward.
With regard to space as a national security concern, Kendall in 2016 warned about the need to invest in space capabilities in the face of Russian and Chinese anti-satellite weapons. He noted that the United States for decades had unimpeded access to space and that can no longer be assumed.
Defense and aerospace industry analyst Byron Callan noted that Kendall, if confirmed as Air Force secretary, likely will be asked to weigh in on Lockheed Martin’s proposed acquisition of rocket propulsion provider Aerojet Rocketdyne. Callan speculated that Kendall might not support it given his opposition to Lockheed Martin’s 2015 acquisition of helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky, which was approved despite DoD’s concerns.