Could Russia or China Soon Have a Better Air Force than America?
Adversary air forces have adopted American tactics and have also caught up to the United States technologically according to senior U.S. Air Force officials.
Where as just a few years ago when American air power commanded the skies unchallenged, Air Force officials now worry that there are only a few select areas where the United States maintains an advantage. Indeed, according to the Air Force, adversaries such as Russia and China have rapidly caught up to the United States.
“Where I once would have said we had a decided advantage on all fronts, today I can say that we retain our lead in some technological areas, however in other areas, our potential adversaries are nipping at our heels or are shoulder-to-shoulder with us,” Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, told the House Armed Services Committee on June 7.
“To address the shrinking technology gap, we must continue to invest in science and technology and modernize our forces.”
To regain the lead over potential adversaries, the Air Force must start to field the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in numbers, continue developing the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider stealth bomber and begin work on a Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) fighter as soon as possible. The Air Force also needs relief from the arbitrary budget cuts imposed by sequestration—also known as the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Right now, even though the F-35 is technically operational, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is the only fighter in the Air Force inventory that is capable of operating in heavily defended airspace. The service will modernize the Raptor with new capabilities—including Link-16 transmit capability—and keep the stealth fighter in service into the 2060s.
“The F-22, currently the only U.S. fighter capable of operating in highly contested environments is also an integral piece of the Air Force’s force structure modernization plan. Its stealth, supercruise, integrated avionics and sensors combine to deliver the Raptor’s unique capability,” Bunch and Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, Air Force, deputy chief of staff for plans, programs and requirements, wrote in their written testimony.
“We plan to retain the F-22 until the 2060 timeframe, meaning a sustained effort is required to counter advancing threats that specifically target its capabilities. The FY18 budget includes 624.5 million dollars in RDT&E and $398.5 million in procurement towards this goal. New software and hardware in increment 3.2B remains on track to field in FY19and will deliver advanced missile capabilities and improved awareness of ground threats. The FY18 budget also funds the acceleration of the TACLink 16 program, which adds transmit capability for the Raptor—providing situational awareness to all U.S. and coalition fighters through the Link 16 network.”
However, to counter the ever-increasing threat from emerging and reemerging great powers, the F-22 won’t be enough. The Air Force will need a new long-range penetrating fighter for missions in theatres such as the Pacific.
“As our adversary capabilities advance, a new PCA capability will play a critical role in targeting and engaging future threats in the most highly contested environments,” Bunch and Harris wrote.
“It will also be instrumental as a node in the larger network, providing data from its sensors to enable complementary weapon systems. This capability will provide the survivability, lethality and persistence to meet emerging worldwide threats across the spectrum of conflict and will be the cornerstone of the Air Force shift from 4th/5th generation to a 5th/6th generation fleet.”
At the same time, the Air Force recognizes that it simply will not have enough F-22s and F-35s to replace all of its fourth-generation fighters in the immediate future. Aircraft such as the F-15E and F-16 Fighting Falcon will be modernized and remain in service for decades to come.
“In addition to pursuing new capabilities and modernizing fifth generation fighters, the Air Force also seeks to extend the service life and modernize critical capabilities of key fourth generation aircraft,” Bunch and Harris wrote.
“Doing so will help maintain Service capacity and readiness to meet the needs of today’s counterterrorism fight while ramping up the F-35 production line and developing PCA.”