For decades, the US military has taken advantage of air superiority over its enemies in all of its conflicts around the world. The Pentagon’s multi-billion dollar investment in advanced warplanes, weapons systems, satellites and aircraft carriers has made air power a central part of America’s global projection of military might.
However, the Chinese 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.
At an Air Force Association conference last month, Chief of Staff General Charles Brown Jr. said the PLA had what he called “the largest aviation forces in the Pacific” and had developed them “under our noses.” Brown predicted that China could overcome US air superiority by 2035.
At the same event, Lieutenant General S. Clinton Hinote, a deputy chief of staff, warned that the US was not keeping up with China’s advances. “We are lagging behind in a few key areas – tonight. This is not a problem tomorrow. This is a problem today.”
Hinote told reporters that as someone aware of the evidence at all levels of classification, he believed China had caught up with the US Air Force’s advances, warning that “the light is flashing red.”
Showing his power
Last week, China sent nearly 150 fighter jets, including the most advanced J-16 fighter jets and H-6 bombers, to Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in a complex demonstration of its military might.
“They’re putting together packages of fighter jets, especially the J-16, which have flown in large numbers. And that’s a relatively new possibility,” said Eric Heginbotham, principal investigator at MIT’s Center for International Studies. ‘They put together complete packages. They also send in anti-submarine warfare aircraft. So they show a lot.’
According to an article published on the official US Air Force website, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall mentioned China 27 times in his close address to the AFA conference last month. By comparison, he mentioned Russia once and Afghanistan three times. Kendall, the USAF’s top civilian leader, also pledged in August to develop more leading technologies that “scare China.”
Encouraged by China’s newly acquired air force, Wang Wei, a senior PLA Air Force official, responded to Kendall’s “scare China” comment last month by inviting the USAF to an airborne meeting: “A foreign colleague recently claimed that he air force feel scared. Well, as long as you’re not scared, let’s meet in the cloud!”
Where USAF Superiority May End
China’s flights near Taiwan last week demonstrate the PLAAF’s improving capabilities. Cristina Garafola, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, wrote in an email to VOA that, when combined with Chinese air defense forces on the ground, “these expanding capabilities will increase the complexity of air domain operations in the Indo-Pacific.”
Timothy Heath, a senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, said that while the PLAAF still lags behind the USAF in technological capabilities and war prowess, the large numbers of combatants on land threaten any attempt by the US to intervene in a fight for Taiwan.
He told VOA that because of its proximity to Taiwan, the PLA can use many complementary weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles, to attack US aircraft carriers, air bases and aircraft. “This counter-intervention capability could help equalize the PLA Air Force’s chances in a major battle near Taiwan.”
Analysts also said distance would be a factor in any Pacific air war. Taiwan is only 161 kilometers from the Chinese coast, compared to more than 700 kilometers from US air bases in Okinawa, Japan, and more than 2,700 kilometers from Guam.
“The US may gain control of the skies over Taiwan in the short term, but it is too far away to do so for more than short periods of time, such as an hour or two,” said Peter Layton, a guest fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute. in Brisbane, Australia, VOA said.
In an interview last month with Air Force TimesKendall said it was an assumption that the US was the dominant power. “We are the dominant military force until you come within about 1,610 kilometers of China, and that starts to change,” he said.
According to Heginbotham of MIT, a specialist in Asian security issues, less than 15% of US air resources are in the Western Pacific, and not all of its planes fly around the clock. “The difference is probably that China can challenge you locally and for some time on their superiority.” he said in a telephone interview with VOA.
General Mark Kelly, the commander of Air Combat Command, called China an “apex peer adversary” with tremendous capabilities in electromagnetic spectrum operations, saying last month the USAF could lose such a battle. He noted that China has already claimed parts of the South China Sea “without firing a shot”.
Supremacy and superiority
Over the years, several studies have shown that America is on track to lose its air superiority over China.
In 2015, a study at the California-based think tank RAND Corporation, lead author of which was Heginbotham, found that while the U.S. still maintained unparalleled air-to-air capabilities, “continuing improvements to China’s air capabilities are making it increasingly difficult for the United States to maintain air superiority.” within a politically and operationally effective time frame, especially in a scenario close to mainland China.”
A 2016 Department of Defense study on the same topic noted that the emergence of integrated and networked air-to-air, ground-to-air capabilities “affects the Air Force’s ability to provide air superiority at the times and places needed.” are in the highly contentious operational environments of 2030 and beyond.”
“The USAF’s 2016 air superiority investigation was adamant that the US was on track to lose its air superiority when fighting distant wars,” Layton told VOA. “The USAF has equipment modernization programs in place to 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 USAF’s mindset about projecting air power had changed over the years since the Cold War. When Washington saw itself as the world’s only superpower, the usual term was “air domination.” Now, when the air threat is manageable at certain times and places, the goal is ‘air superiority’.