Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall delivers remarks during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Sept. 20.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall delivers remarks during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Sept. 20. Wayne Clark/USAF

Air Force Secretary Warns of China’s Burgeoning Nuclear Arsenal, Reveals B-21 Detail

Frank Kendall also criticized Congress for not allowing the Air Force to retire old, unneeded warplanes and questioned the need for hypersonic weapons.

China could be heading for a first-strike nuclear capability, the U.S. Air Force secretary said Monday, urging the United States to accelerate its own weapons development to keep pace with Beijing.

“If they continue down the path that they seem to be on—to substantially increase their ICBM force—they will have a de facto first-strike capability,” Frank Kendall told reporters at the Air Force Association’s annual conference outside Washington, D.C.

But independent nuclear-policy experts noted that even China’s decades-old ICBMs could be “a first-strike weapon,” and challenged Air Force officials to produce evidence that Beijing actually intends to change its “no first use” policy.

In his second major speech since becoming Air Force secretary two months ago, Kendall called out various Chinese weapons developments as reason for concern.

“You're gonna get tired of hearing me talk about China and the pacing threat that we face,” he said at a press conference a few hours after his speech.

He also criticized Congress for not allowing the Air Force to retire old, unneeded warplanes; disclosed that Northrop Grumman is secretly building five B-21 stealth bombers simultaneously; and questioned the need for hypersonic weapons, which is officially one of his service’s top modernization priorities. 

Kendall warned that China's nuclear-weapons development, including building what is believed to be at least 100 intercontinental ballistic missile silos, could signal a shift in its “no first use” policy, meaning it would only use nuclear weapons if fired upon.

China has about 320 nuclear warheads, while the U.S. has about 5,500.

Kendall said the under-construction silos were “a destabilizing move on their part.” 

“I'm not sure they fully appreciate the risks that they're adding to the entire global nuclear equation by doing,” he said.

Kendall’s comments appeared to echo recent statements by Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, the military headquarters that oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“It really doesn’t matter why China is and continues to grow and modernize,” Richard said in August at a missile defense conference. “What matters is they are building the capability to execute any plausible nuclear employment strategy—the last brick in the wall of a military capable of coercion.”

On Monday, Kendall acknowledged he did not know China’s intentions, but “we need to have a dialogue with them to try to understand that.”

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said Kendall and Richard need to back up their statements with evidence of China’s intent.

“Anyone with nuclear weapons can potentially conduct a first strike and China has for decades had the capability to do so if it wanted to,” Kristensen said. “But the ‘capability’ doesn’t say much about strategy or intent and Richard and Kendall don’t provide any evidence that’s what China is aiming for.”

Kendall also warned that China could be developing weapons in space.

“They have gone from a few high-value assets near China’s shores to the second and third island chains, and most recently to intercontinental ranges and even to the potential for global strikes from space,” he said.

U.S. military officials have said China has developed a satellite with a robotic arm that could “grapple” other satellites.

“If you look at the capabilities that they're developing, it is clear that they are developing capabilities to deny us our access to space,” Gen. Jay Raymond, the chief of space operations, said Monday at the press conference. “We can't let that happen. If we let that happen we lose.”

While Kendall spent much of his speech and press conference warning about China’s weapons modernization, he disclosed the five B-21 stealth bomber test aircraft were being built at a Northrop Grumman factory in Palmdale, California. This marks the first time the Air Force has said how many bombers are under construction as part of the secret, but acknowledged programs.

“You will never hear me make optimistic predictions about programs—all programs have risk and the same is true of the B-21—but at this point at least, the program is making good progress to real fielded capability,” he said. “This investment in meaningful military capabilities that project power and hold targets at risk anywhere in the world addresses my number one priority.

Kendall also said the Air Force would continue to defy Congress by proposing retirements to existing warplanes.

“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 impact the local economy,” he said.

Question the status quo

Kendall, who served as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer during the Obama administration, also questioned why the U.S. military needs hypersonic weapons. 

“It's pretty clear to me what the Chinese want to do with the hypersonics they're developing;  it's even pretty clear to me what the Russians might want to do with hypersonics,” he said. “This target set that we would want to address, and why hypersonics are the most cost-effective weapon for the U.S.—I think it's still to me somewhat of a question mark. I haven't seen all the analysis that's been done to justify the current programs.” 

Kendall said the Air Force needs to have a better focus before conducting weapons experiments. 

“We should not be doing demonstrations and experiments unless we can link them to true operational improvements and unless they move us down the field to lower-risk acquisition programs,” he said. “I intend to strengthen these linkages and to use state-of-the-art analytical tools to do so.”

Kendall also criticized the Air Battle Management System, an Air Force component of the Pentagon’s connect-everything initiative called Joint Domain Command and Control.

“My early observation is that this program has not been adequately focused on achieving and fielding specific measurable improvements in operational outcomes,” he said during his speech. “To achieve effective change we must also keep our eye on the ball. For me that means focusing on the fielding of meaningful military capability into the hands of our operational users.”

Kendall also expressed support for the Next-Generation Air Dominance, a classified effort to build a new-generation fighter jet. 

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