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Aging US aircraft can’t intimidate or defeat China, new Air Force Secretary says

Members of the 451st Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron perform a maintenance inspection on an A-10 Thunderbolt II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman David W. Carbajal)
September 21, 2021

China’s rapid aerospace developments are presenting the biggest military challenge to the U.S. in its entire history and the U.S. may be too insistent on maintaining old aircraft fleets to keep pace with that threat, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall warned on Monday.

In his first public speech since being confirmed as Air Force secretary, Kendall told the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland that the service needs to more rapidly retire old aircraft and replace them, or else it won’t be able to keep up with China and Russia.

In his speech, Kendall suggested the Air Force would once again attempt to pick up the pace on retiring old aircraft “that we no longer need and that do not intimidate China.”

“While America is still the dominant military power on the planet today, we are being more effectively challenged militarily than at any other time in our history,” Kendall said.

In his speech, Kendall mentioned China 27 different times, while mentioning Russia once and Afghanistan three times.

“We will not succeed against a well-resourced and strategic competitor if we insist on keeping every legacy system we have,” he said, according to Defense News. “Our one team cannot win its one fight to deter China or Russia without the resources we need and a willingness to balance risk today to avoid much greater risk in the future.”

In recent years, the Air Force tried, unsuccessfully, to entirely retire some of its legacy aircraft, including the U-2 spy planes, the RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones and A-10 Warthog attack planes. Military leaders said, at the time, that Budget Control Act caps made it difficult to maintain older existing systems and still continue to modernize the Air Force.

In order to balance its continued use of legacy aircraft with modernization efforts, the Air Force has put forward budget proposals that more slowly retired portions of aging aircraft fleets. The proposals called for several squadrons of A-10s, the oldest Global Hawk models and some of the Air Force’s older KC-10 and KC-135 tankers, Defense News reported.

Kendall said, “I do understand the political constraints here, and I’m happy to work with Congress to find a better mechanism to make the changes we need, but we must move forward.”

One challenge Kendall identified was that lawmakers often borrow political popularity from keeping certain aircraft and bases in their states, where their presence could bolster the local economy even if the outdated aircraft are becoming a drag on the Air Force’s modernization efforts.

“It was a frequent occurrence during my confirmation process to have a senator agree with me about the significance of the Chinese threat, and in the same breath to tell me that under no circumstances could the — take your pick — C-130s, A-10s, KC-10s, [or] MQ-9s in that senator’s state be retired, nor could any base in his or her state ever be closed or lose manpower that would cause impact to the local economy.”

Kendall told the conference that he could not imagine a similar constraint affecting China’s military modernization efforts.