The U.S. Air Force Could Fall Behind Russia and China by 2025

December 11, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaChinaMilitaryTechnologyWorldAir Force

The U.S. Air Force Could Fall Behind Russia and China by 2025

The Air Force has laid out a detailed request to grow the service from 312 operational squadrons up to 386.

The US Air Force will fall behind Russia and China by 2025 unless the service quickly embarks upon a sizeable expansion of its fighting technologies, weapons arsenal and major attack platforms - to include new bombers, fighters, drones, rescue helicopters and more, senior service leaders suggest.

Following a detailed analysis, which likely included close examination of threats, mission requirements and dangerous emerging technologies, the service has laid out a detailed request to grow the service from 312 operational squadrons up to 386. The largest needed increases, according to the Air Force plan, include 22 new ISR Command and Control squadrons, 7 more fighter squadrons and and 5 more bomber squadrons.

“The National Defense strategy tells us tells us we need to be able to defend the homeland, provide nuclear deterrence and win wars against major powers while countering rogue nations,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said recently at an Air Force Association convention. “We need to create dilemmas for our adversary."

By stating that the Air Force “needs” 386 squadrons to meet the expected threat by 2025 to 2030, Wilson did appear to be indicating, if in an indirect way, that the US Air Force is in serious danger of falling behind Russia and China - should the service not expand.

An Air Force report cites Wilson explaining it this way - the analysis supporting the 386 squadrons needed to support the National Defense Strategy is based on estimates of the expected threat by 2025 to 2030. At the end of the Cold War, the Air Force had 401 operational squadrons. By any cursory estimation, it does not take much to notice an uptick in mission demands for the Air Force, coming on the heels of more than 15-years of counterinsurgency air support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has sent F-35-armed Theater Security Packages to the Pacific and moved F-22s closer to the Russian border. Meanwhile, the F-35 has launched its first attacks in history and there is an incessant, ubiquitous refrain that there is consistently just not enough ISR to meet current mission demands.

“The Air Force is too small for what the nation expects of us,” Wilson said.

Other details of the Air Force requested expansion plan include:  5 More Bomber squadrons-- 9 More Combat Search and Rescue squadrons-- 22 More Command and Control - ISR squadrons-- 14 More Tanker squadrons-- 7 More Fighter Squadrons-- 7 More Space Squadrons.

Interestingly, the Air Force request, according to Wilson, does not ask specifically for a numerical increase in cyber squadrons, although Wilson did say much more would be asked of the current cyber force. The Air Force is also not requesting an increase in ICBMs, in part because the service is already well underway with a program to build 400 new Ground Based Strategic Deterrence ground-launched nuclear missiles.

Meanwhile, statements from former senior Air Force leaders, Congressional analysts, observers and critics may go even further when it comes to voicing serious concerns about the service’s ability to meet anticipated threats -- calling the current situation “dangerous.” “The USAF is a geriatric force—it has bombers, tankers, and trainer aircraft over 50 years old; helicopters over 40; and fighters over 30—it has a 2000+ pilot shortage,” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Warrior in an interview.

To underscore his point, Deptula cited a recent independent bipartisan Commission on the National Defense Strategy as stating: “America’s military superiority—the hard-power backbone of its global influence and national security—has eroded to a dangerous degree.”

Going back as far as the Gulf War, Kosovo and of course Operation Iraqi Freedom, the US Air Force had few challenges when it comes to achieving and maintaining “air supremacy.” This kind of supremacy, however, is no longer assured, a scenario which continues to inspire the Air Force to prepare for a major, “high-end” fight involving air-to-air combat and attacks against modern air defenses.

F-15, B-2 and Reaper Upgrades: 

In response to this self-identified massive force deficiency, the Air Force is trying to move quickly to upgrade its current fleet to keep pace with emerging threats. The F-15, Reaper drone and B-2 upgrades are all visible examples of how the service is attempting to modernize decades old weapons systems. These initiatives, which upon examination do appear both substantial and impactful, may nonetheless have limitations and ultimately fall short of addressing all the expected challenges posed by technologically sophisticated enemies.

The Air Force, for instance, is immersed in an aggressive program to upgrade its F-15 such that it can fly into the 2040s. This includes new weapons integration, exponential jumps forward in computer processing speed and new Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar.

While these changes will massively increase the 1980s aircraft’s detection range, attack envelope and sensor processing, a Congressional Commission (US-China Economic & Security Review) from several years ago found that the much more recently built Chinese J-10 has closed the gap with the F-15 and appears to present a substantial, if not equivalent threat. This, Air Force and Boeing weapons developers say, is an unambiguous driver of current F-15 modernization. Just how much it can sustain a superiority gap, it seems apparent, is an open question.

Alongside aggressive modernization, the Air Force is concurrently pursuing “Full Scale Fatigue Tests” to see how much longer F-15 airframes, avionics and weapons systems can extend service life, former Air Force spokeswoman Emily Grabowski told Warrior Maven last year. As for new F-15 weapons integration, Air Force weapons engineers are planning to add the AIM-9X air-to-air missile and emerging Small Diameter Bomb II, she added.

The SDB II, now nearing operational readiness, is a new air-dropped weapon able to destroy moving targets in all kinds of weather conditions at ranges greater than 40-miles, Air Force and Raytheon officials said.While the Air Force currently uses a laser-guided bomb called the GBU-54 able to destroy moving targets, the new SDB II will be able to do this at longer ranges and in a wider range of combat conditions.The Air Force currently operates roughly 400 F-15C, D and E variants – and plans to keep the aircraft flying into the 2040s. 

The Chinese 5th-generation J-20 and J-31 aircraft are, by many estimations, a serious threat to the F-35. Of course while some exact details of the Chinese aircraft are not available in open-source research, it is widely known that the design is an unmistakeable F-35 “rip off.”

In fact, a Congressional US-China review as far back as 2014 made specific reference to a US Defense Science Board report citing Chinese cyber-espionage as being responsible for stealing a number of US weapons specs - to include the F-35.

All of this being known, many experts and US military weapons developers, are not hesitant to say they are confident that the F-35 is the most superior 5th-gen fighter in the world, alongside the F-22. Also, many experts, observers and weapons developers are clear that China’s attempts to replicate, match or steal US 5th Gen technical sophistication, may not be at all successful. The current and future threat posed by Chinese aircraft, however, is said to be extremely serious by any estimation.

Yet another pressing dilemma often recognized by threat assessment analysts and senior Air Force developers is, simply put, that emerging high-tech air defenses will challenge the ability for stealth platforms to operate over enemy territory. This reality, scholars and service experts say, forms the principle basis for both the need for a new B-21 stealth bomber (which reportedly contains undisclosed, massive leaps forward in stealth technologies) and the current massive overhaul of the B-2.

A quick look at B-2 modernization includes the integration of a new sensor called the Defensive Management System, which can reportedly help the decades-old bomber identify the locations of enemy air defenses. Other B-2 adjustments, believed to enable the B-2 to function very successfully for decades to come, include a new, 1,000-times faster computer processor and new weapons such as much more capable B-61 mod 12 nuclear bomb and Long Range Standoff weapon nuclear-armed cruise missile. At the same time, despite these advances, there is clear consensus that the service needs a larger number of new B-21 bombers. 

Future drones will both incorporate stealth technologies, longer-range miniaturized sensors and higher levels of autonomy - given that current platforms like the Reaper will expectedly have trouble operating above advanced air defenses, Deptula and others have said. Nonetheless, the Air Force does anticipate the Reaper to be of critical mission value well into future decades, particularly in light of the Predator retirement. The Reaper is currently getting a universal weapons interface to expand its weapons envelope as well as new fuel tanks to lengthen mission time.

Deployment length is also a major factor when it comes to maxing out the Air Force’s current ability to meet global demands from Combatant Commanders, according to a RAND study, called “Is the US Flying Force Large Enough.” The study, as reported on by Warrior Maven writer Dave Majumdar, examines four potential scenarios; two Cold War scenarios with Russia or China, a peace enforcement scenario and a counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency type scenario. “In each of the four possible futures examined, the 2017 USAF force was unable to meet the demands for all types of aircraft,” the study summary states.