Video Above: How Quickly can the US Close the Hypersonics Gap with Russia and China?
Could the US Air Force dominate the skies today should it go to war with China? It is a simple, clear and pressing question of pressing relevance to the Pentagon and members of Congress given the escalating threat circumstance in the Pacific and the alarming pace of Chinese military modernization.
This question was presented to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown by Rep. John Rice Carter, R-Texas during a budget hearing at the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
“We’ve got to dominate the airspace to protect armor. As we drawdown and take down a lot of platforms, we hope to get to the future quickly. A drawdown in anticipation we will dominate the future causes great concern to me,” Carter said to senior Air Force decision makers.
Carter explained that his concern resides in the prospect that future capabilities may not arrive soon enough to close the gap in retiring legacy or existing platforms, citing how long it took to get an operational F-35. Is there an expectation or hope that future platforms will arrive soon enough to account for force drawdowns? Or is that presenting a substantial risk given that the timing of when new platforms arrive may not yet be known?
Video Above: Comparing U.S. 5th Generation Fighter Jets, F-35 & F-22 to China's Fighter Jets, Including the J-20
Both Kendall and Brown shared Rep. Carter’s concern and made it clear the service emphasizes and understands the seriousness of the Chinese threat.
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The Chinese Threat
“China spent the last 30-years studying what could defeat the US. We are being challenged and we have to move to the next-generation,” Kendall told the Subcommittee.
Progress with the Next-Generation Air Dominance, for example, is moving very quickly in part due to accelerated acquisition procedures and emerging technologies such as digital engineering. Demonstrator 6th-generation aircraft are already airborne, however the exact timing of its arrival in sufficient numbers may remain a question mark to a certain extent, underscoring Carter’s point about the need to ensure current superiority as the service pivots to a new generation of technology.
There are a number of key variables to consider with this question of US air dominance in a potential engagement with China. At the moment, the US does have a sizable 5th-generation advantage, given that the US already operates hundreds of F-35s across the services, including roughly 300 in the US Air Force.
J-20 and J-31
China, by contrast, does not operate a large number of its 5th-generation stealth J-20 aircraft and, at least for the moment, would suffer a significant numbers deficit when it comes to stealth 5th-generation capability. To quote the famous Sun Tzu, “mass matters,” a concept still quite relevant today.
However, this potential advantage, as described by both Kendall and Brown, is indeed in jeopardy given the pace at which China continues to produce and upgrade its fleet of J-20s. China’s production capacity is extremely well known and continues to raise alarm at the Pentagon. Secondly, China is moving quickly with a new carrier-launched 5th-generation air platform with its J-31, and the People’s Liberation Air Force will likely produce this capability quickly as well.
At the same time, the US Air Force has embarked upon an ambitious and thus far successful modernization program with its F-35, with the aim of sustaining its superiority for decades into the future. Therefore, there are many question marks and variables to consider when weighing questions about how best to optimize the path forward, and the Air Force is clearly trying to address Carter’s concern about making sure the service can sustain superiority in both the short and long term.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.