For decades, the United States military has benefited from having air superiority over its enemies in all its conflicts around the world. The Pentagon’s multi-billion dollar investments in advanced warplanes, weapon systems, satellites and aircraft carriers have made air power a central part of the global launch of America’s military might.
However, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is rapidly modernizing, and military leaders and analysts say Washington may no longer always be able to rely on its air superiority.
Speaking at an Air Force Association conference last month, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown Jr. said the PLA had “the largest aviation force in the Pacific” and had developed them “under our noses”. Brown predicted that China could surpass US air superiority by 2035.
In the same incident, Lieutenant General S. Clinton Hinot, a deputy chief of staff, warned that the US was not keeping pace with China’s progress. “In some important areas, we are behind – tonight. It’s not yesterday’s problem. It’s today.”
Hinote told reporters that as someone who was aware of the evidence at all classification levels, he believed China had caught up to the progress of US air power, and warned that “light red Happening.”
showing his strength
Last week, China sent nearly 150 warplanes, including its most advanced J-16 fighter jets and H-6 bombers, into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in an intricate display of its military prowess.
“Those packages of fighter aircraft, particularly the J-16, have been flown in large numbers. And this is a relatively new capability,” said Eric Hagginbotham, a lead research scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies. “They’re putting the whole package together. They’re also sending anti-submarine warfare aircraft. So, they’re showing a lot.”
According to an article published on the official website of the US Air Force, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall mentioned China 27 times in his closely watched address at the AFA conference last month. In comparison, he mentioned Russia once and Afghanistan thrice. The USAF’s top civilian leader, Kendall, also pledged in August to develop more pioneering technologies that “scare China.”
Encouraged by China’s newly acquired air power, Wang Wei, a senior PLA Air Force officer, responded to Kendall’s “intimidating China” remark last month by inviting the USAF to meet in the sky: “A foreign ally recently claimed to create the Chinese Air Force. I’m scared. Well, as long as you’re not scared, let’s meet in the clouds!”
Where USAF Superiority May End
China’s flights near Taiwan last week demonstrate the superior capabilities of the PLAAF. Christina Garfola, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, wrote in an email to VOA that when combined with China’s ground-based air defense forces, “these increased capabilities increase the complexity of airspace operations in the Indo-Pacific.” Will go.”
Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, said that while the PLAAF still lags behind the USAF in technical capabilities and combat prowess, its large number of land-based fighters pose a threat to any US attempt to intervene in the fighting over Taiwan. has been born. .
He told the VOA that because of its proximity to Taiwan, the PLA could use a number of complementary weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles, to attack US carriers, airfields and aircraft. “This counter-interference capability could also help deter the PLA Air Force in a major battle near Taiwan.”
Analysts also said distance would be a factor in any air combat in the Pacific. Taiwan is just 161 kilometers from the coast of China, while Okinawa, Japan, is more than 700 kilometers from US airports and more than 2,700 kilometers from Guam.
“The US can gain short-term control of the wind over Taiwan, but it is too far to do so for a short period of time, such as an hour or two,” said Peter Layton, a visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Brisbane. Australia, told VOA.
in an interview last month Air Force Times, Kendall said it was a belief that America was the dominant power. “Unless you get within about 1,000 miles (1,610 kilometers) of China, we’re the dominant military power, and that’s starting to change,” he said.
According to MIT’s Hegginbotham, an expert on Asian security issues, less than 15% of US air inventory is in the western Pacific, and the US does not have all of its aircraft around the clock. “The difference is probably that China can challenge you on your superiority locally and for a certain period of time.” he said in a telephone interview with VOA.
Calling China a “top peer adversary” with vast capabilities in electromagnetic spectrum operations, General Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, said last month that the USAF could lose such a battle. He said China has already claimed parts of the South China Sea “without firing a single shot”.
supremacy and superiority
Over the years, several studies have found that the US is on track to lose its air superiority over China.
In 2015, a study at the California-based RAND Corporation think tank, of which Hegginbotham was lead author, found that while the US still maintained unparalleled air-to-air capability, “continuous improvements in Chinese air capabilities made this increasingly difficult.” to allow the United States to achieve air superiority within a politically and operationally effective time frame, particularly in a scenario close to the Chinese mainland.”
A 2016 Department of Defense study on the same topic stated that emerging integrated and networked air-to-air, surface-to-air capabilities “are the Air Force’s ability to provide air superiority at the times and locations needed in a highly competitive operational environment.” jeopardizes capability. 2030 and beyond.”
“The 2016 USAF air superiority study was adamant that the US was on track to lose air superiority in fighting distant wars,” Layton told VOA. “The USAF has equipment modernization programs to help address this, such as the B-21 and Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter, but these are unlikely to make a real difference until the 2030s.”
Layton argued in a blog post that the way the USAF thinks about projecting air power has changed in the years since the Cold War. When Washington saw itself as the world’s only superpower, the general term was “air supremacy”. Now, when the air threat can be controlled at certain times and places, the aim is “air superiority”.