The U.S. Air Force is focusing on system quality and resilience more than system numbers and lethality, as the service requests a record $49.2 billion in research and development in fiscal 2023 and tries to narrow its R&D to initiatives that show near-term fielding promise, such as Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) autonomous drones to enhance the features of manned planes, like the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35A, the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber, and the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.

The Air Force’s fiscal 2023 R&D request is $9.1 billion more than the service asked for last year, and almost $20 billion more than the service requests for procurement in fiscal 2023.

“I’m not focused on counting end strength or squadrons or airplanes,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said during a Brookings Institution Future of American Airpower forum on May 2. “I’m focused on the capability to carry out the operations we might have to support, and essentially it’s the ones [for] defeating aggression. If you can’t deter or defeat the initial act of aggression, then you’re in a situation like we’re seeing in Ukraine with a protracted conflict, and nobody knows right now how long they’re going to grind away at each other in Ukraine.”

“We don’t want to be in that mode, and having a very large force supports that kind of [Ukraine] fight,” he said. “The force we have really needs first and foremost to deter that act of aggression and, if necessary, defeat it. I am more focused on quality than I am on quantity right now. An awful lot of the equipment we have is old. The average age of our airplanes right now is 30 years.”

In 2018, Air Force leaders, including then-Secretary oif the Air Force Heather Wilson and then-Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein proposed an increase in operational squadrons from 312 to 386 (Defense Daily, Sept. 18, 2018). Yet, nothing came of that proposal, and Kendall’s remarks on May 2 indicate that he would not try to revive the plan.

In his May 2nd remarks to the Brookings forum, Kendall suggested that advanced technologies would compensate for a loss of force structure through the divestment of old systems, and he cited Air Force plans to field the Boeing [BA] E-7 Wedgetail to replace the 1970s-era Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft.

In response to a question on former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ focus on lethality, Kendall said that he believes that making Department of the Air Force systems for space, command and control, and other areas more resilient and survivable is more important than matching Chinese forces tit-for-tat in lethality advances.

“I have enormous respect for Jim Mattis,” Kendall said. “But I would say that he was mistaken in his emphasis on lethality. The problem the United States has when you look at a competitor like China is survivability. It’s the fact that we depend upon a small number of high value assets whether they’re satellites, forward air bases, or aircraft carriers, or logistics and C3 nodes. Many of these are fixed, or at least very predictable in terms of where they’re going to be, or they’re relatively easy to follow once they move across the surface of the oceans or the earth.”

Kendall said that while some initiatives for heightened lethality–such as hypersonics, features to allow strikes on moving targets, and anti-ship missiles–are important to deter China, he is more concerned about enhancing Air Force system survivability so that the service is able to deter and defeat advanced adversaries.

Of all the technology priorities on the Air Force to-do list, Kendall said that his top one is “autonomous behaviors and artificial intelligence decision support.”

“The gamble that I’m making in the TACAIR [tactical aircraft] case, for sure, is that we’re going to go ahead with uncrewed combat aircraft, that we’re going to use technologies that are coming out of the DARPA ACE [Air Combat Evolution] program, the [Air Force] Skyborg program, the Australian Loyal Wingman program, and others, and we’re gonna integrate those into an operational capability and field it,” Kendall said on May 2. “It will be the first time we’ve done that.”

Such drones would carry sensors, communications, weapons, and/or countermeasures.

Uncrewed combat aircraft “does invoke some really interesting questions about human control and the degree of autonomy you’re willing to tolerate operationally,” Kendall said. “The problem we’re going to have is that, if we don’t go in that direction, we’re going to lose. Some of our competitors are not going to be as constrained as we are by those things…I’m a human rights lawyer. I am absolutely committed to the law of war and [ensuring] we follow those rules, but we’re going to have to figure out how to embed that capability and hold people accountable for what they do, even though a machine may be acting as a proxy for the human, to some degree, and put meaningful controls in so we can control how those systems are used. There’s work to be done there, but I think we’re going to move in that direction, and I think it’s going to happen, in general, whether the U.S. does it first or not.”

Kendall received a law degree from Georgetown University in 2004, and has worked, primarily pro bono, on human rights, per his biography, which listed his service as a member of the board of directors of Amnesty International USA; his service with Human Rights First as an observer at the prison at Guantanamo Bay; and his chairing the board of directors at the Tahirih Justice Center.