It is no secret that China’s presence as a peer competitor is driving the intensity of the U.S. Air Force’s move to embrace a future fighter roadmap. Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, explained the importance of the future fighter roadmap for preparing for a conflict with China during the Air Force Association’s 2021 Air, Space & Cyber Conference last week.
While the U.S. Air Force spent years fighting in the Middle East with equipment developed for Cold War competition, China reconstituted its force to focus on countering the United States.
“We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago and we focused on providing unwavering and world-class support to a counterinsurgency in a very permissive environment,” Kelly said. “During that same 20 years, China organized, trained, and equipped its military singularly focused and singularly invested across every domain in a high-end fight. Singularly focused and singularly invested on fighting us.”
That process began after China studied the U.S. military’s success during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and continues today. Kelly added some interesting specifics regarding China’s strategic effort to match and pass the U.S. Air Force in terms of air dominance and warfighting sophistication.
“China knows that the bulk of any US fighter force that would lock horns in a peer fight was designed for European basing for a Soviet fight,” he said. “They know it has been utilized and expended over two decades in a permissive counterinsurgency environment. They know that our fighter force has gotten much older. They know that our fighter force has gotten significantly smaller. They know that there is exponentially more water and distance in this area of operations and exponentially less land, less ports, less communications infrastructure, less rail lines across the board.”
China’s study of American force structure, design, strategy, and positioning has informed Beijing’s defense priorities.
“Their anti-access, area-denial defensive construct is specifically designed to exploit the capabilities and limitations of a NATO force design tasked to operate outside of NATO airspace,” Kelly said.
The vast expanse that is the Pacific region is fundamental to China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy. Chinese anti-ship missiles, long-range ballistic weapons, mobile missile launchers, ships, and drones are all intended to prevent the U.S. military from accessing areas close to China’s borders.
“It is significantly harder to compete against a nation in their own sovereign space,” Kelly said. “That’s part of the reason why China would like to transition the South China Sea into their own sovereignty.”
China is relying on being able to fight from its own sovereign territory and leverage every possible advantage. This is why China has more actual air power presence in the Pacific region, a circumstance Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown said needs to change. This means the United States will continue to seek more basing opportunities for its growing force of fifth- and sixth-generation aircraft as well as stealthy drones.
“We need to remind folks and we need to remind ourselves occasionally that we are the sons and daughters of airmen who designed, built and operated SR-71s over sovereign territory,” Kelly said. “Designed and built RQ-170s, B-2s, and now B-21s to operate over sovereign territory. Built cyber capabilities to punch into sovereign networks. And that our adversaries will compete in our sovereigns if we let them. If you’re going to be a resident world power, you have to step up and compete not just in the global commons, but also in the highly-contested sovereigns.”
Kris Osborn is 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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.