In a keynote speech on September 20, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall cautioned that China’s rapid developments in nuclear and conventional weaponry would pose a challenge to the US in the air and space domains. “While America is the world’s dominant military power, we are militarily challenged more effectively than at any other point in our history,” he stated at Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyber Conference.
Kendall explained, “We are in a national, tactical, long-term competition with a strategic opponent.” Kendall’s talk to a wide audience of the active-duty service personnel, defense contractors, and government civilians focused on China’s progress in military and space capabilities, as well as the ramifications for US national security.
He said that long-range precision-guided explosives, space, and cyber weapons, hypersonic missiles, are among China’s military development priorities. “I’ve got a chance to catch up with the latest intelligence on China’s modernization efforts. If anything, China’s modernization has accelerated,” Kendall added.
According to him, China is developing silo-centered intercontinental satellite-guided and ballistic missiles weapons to strike objectives on Earth and in space. While some of this information came from accessible sources, Kendall also got classified briefings. Kendall described the disclosures as “the most frightening advances in nuclear proliferation I’ve seen in my lifetime” during a press conference.
In terms of space weapons, he suggested that China may develop a worldwide attack capacity that uses space to deliver missiles, a notion modeled by the Cold War-era Soviet-era “fractional orbital bombardment system.” The Soviets planned to launch nuclear weapons into the low Earth orbit and steer them toward land targets afterward.
Kendall stated he had no particular knowledge that the Chinese are working on this but that “it could be possible” and that the partial orbital system would be appealing to the Chinese since it is difficult to identify by early-warning satellites. He said he grew up during the Cold War and also that history repeats itself. To remain abreast of China, the US would need to “respond with urgency, but we also need to take the time needed to make good decisions about our future and investments,” he said.
Kendall started his career as a military officer in the United States Army. He joined the civil service as a systems engineer in the missile defense after multiple jobs that included postings to Germany as well as teaching engineering at the West Point. As a part of the Senior Executive Service, he was appointed Assistant Deputy Under Secretary in charge of the Strategic Defense Systems in 1986. He was the acting and afterward permanent Deputy Director in charge of the Defense Research and Engineering from the year 1989 to 1994.