Frank Kendall, President Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. Air Force Secretary, indicated on May 25 that he is not convinced of the need for a separate service acquisition executive (SAE) for the U.S. Space Force, but pledged that he will establish the Space Force SAE, as required by Congress under Section 957 of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), P.L. 116-92.

“Personally I am not convinced of the need for this position, but if confirmed I will ensure it is filled promptly with a qualified individual and that the position has the resources and support needed to be successful,” Kendall said in response to advance policy questions before his Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) nomination hearing on Tuesday. “If confirmed, I will hold each SAE accountable for the cost, schedule, and performance of the acquisition programs under their purview.”

Kendall served as the Pentagon acquisition chief during the Obama administration and is a U.S. Army veteran and former Raytheon Technologies [RTX] executive.

While USSF Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond said earlier this month that the Space Force needs a separate SAE now, Section 957 of the fiscal 2020 NDAA said that the new assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration would not become the Department of the Air Force SAE for space systems and programs–the Space Force SAE–until Oct. 1, 2022 (Defense Daily, May 12).

Raymond said this month that “we need to accelerate that timeline” to have a Space Force SAE apart from the Air Force SAE to focus on improving the acquisition of space systems.

Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth also suggested to the House Appropriations Committee’s Defense panel (HAC-D) this month that Congress should amend the language in the fiscal 2020 NDAA to allow a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration to become the Space Force SAE before Oct. 1 next year (Defense Daily, May 7).

At the SASC May 25 hearing, Kendall, who had spearheaded a two-year production pause for the U.S. Marine Corps’ version of the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 during the Obama administration, affirmed his commitment to the fifth-generation fighter for the Air Force, Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, and international partners.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the SASC ranking member, told Kendall that he is concerned with criticism of the F-35 and that it is “the most capable and cost-effective fighter that’s out there today.” Inhofe then asked Kendall whether he agreed with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown that the F-35 is the “cornerstone of the Air Force fighter fleet.”

“The F-35 is the best tactical aircraft of its type in the world and will be so for quite some time,” Kendall replied. “It’s a complex, expensive weapon, unfortunately, but it is a dominant weapon when it comes up against earlier generation aircraft.”

In response to Inhofe, Kendall acknowledged spiralling F-35 sustainment expenses but said that “the key to keeping the costs down in an airfleet is getting the numbers up.”

“There’s a very strong correlation between the size of the fleet and the cost to sustain that fleet,” he said. “If there were one thing that I think would drive costs down, it’s continuing to buy.”

The U.S. Air Force is procuring 48 to 60 planes per year, but, at that rate, it will take until 2048 for the service to field what it has advertised as its goal–1,763 planes (Defense Daily, March 22).

The Air Force said recently that it has 283 F-35As–a number that makes the F-35A the second most numerous fighter in the service fleet behind the Lockheed Martin F-16.

The Heritage Foundation has proposed increasing the F-35A buy rate to 80, 100 and 120 over the next three years. A Heritage Foundation internal analysis of Air Force requirements determined a need for just 1,265 F-35As and said that accelerating the F-35A buy to 120 per year would result in an Air Force fleet of 1,265 planes by 2030.

The service faces budget challenges for a number of platforms, including its fighters, and how many legacy Lockheed Martin F-16s and Boeing [BA] F-15Cs and Ds it can afford to sustain, while moving out on the Next Generation Air Dominance program, the Boeing F-15EX, and reducing the cost per flying hour of the Lockheed Martin F-35A. It appears likely that the service will end up proposing to buy fewer than the 1,763 F-35As it had planned, especially if the cost per flying hour and sustainment costs do not come down significantly.

At the May 25 confirmation hearing for Kendall, he pledged that he would look into an apparent delay in the propeller upgrade program for the Lockheed Martin C-130H airlifter after Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that the Air Force has not yet bought 26 upgrade kits funded in fiscal 2021.

The NP2000 Collins Aerospace propeller upgrade for the C-130H includes eight composite blades and a digital electronic propeller control system by Orlando-based Aircraft Engineering and Installation Services, Inc. The upgrade is to decrease vibration and interior noise in the cockpit and increase aircraft thrust by 20 percent during take-off. Collins is part of Raytheon Technologies.