China’s fighter jet force may already have caught up with the quality and quantity of the United States, prompting new urgent calls for Washington to build up and modernize the US fighter fleet.
US Air Combat Command Chief General Mark Kelley said the Combat Air Forces of the Americas were short 12 squadrons of multiple aircraft types at the annual Air, Space and Power Conference. Air Force Associations cybersecurity this month, as reported by Air and Space Forces magazine.
He warned that the United States had left the era of conventional overshoot, with American combat air forces less than half of what they were during the 1991 Gulf War. However, the exact aircraft numbers are highly classified; fighter squadrons usually consist of 18 to 24 jets.
When you have a conventional overmatch, the strategic risk is low. But that’s not where we’re at in terms of conventional deterrence, Kelly said.
He noted that while the US Air Force needs 60 fighter squadrons, it only has 48 to carry out its homeland defense, emergency overseas, overseas presence missions. and crisis response.
He added that while the US Air Force has nine squadrons of A-10 ground attack aircraft, they lack air-to-air and multirole combat capability.
Kelly said these fighter shortages were felt most in the Pacific, noting that the United States needed 13 fighter squadrons in the region but only had 11 left. In terms of crisis response forces , he mentions that the United States is short of five squadrons.
Along with squadron shortages, Kelly says only three out of eight squadrons are transitioning to new aircraft, resulting in a smaller, older, and less capable fighter force.
He pointed out that the US fighter fleet is on average 28.8 years old compared to 9.7 years in 1991, with readiness levels plummeting as pilots get only 9.7 flight hours a month, down from 22 .3 just before the 1991 Gulf War.
A U.S. Air Force captain performs preflight checks on an F-16 Falcon fighter jet before takeoff at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., April 15, 2021. Photo: Air Force Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus
Flying is a skill that atrophies without practice, notes Kate Odell in a February 2022 article for The Wall Street Journal. She notes that a fighter pilot needs 200 flying hours a year to stay sharp, with four or three training rides a week to maintain proficiency. At one or two exits, Odell mentions that a pilot will deteriorate in ability and comfort in the cockpit.
Kelly argues for a fighter force that will deter any adversary from considering war with the United States, saying no country in his mind would choose to fight a country with 134 modernized fighters, although trained and well equipped. fighter squadrons.
To achieve these numbers, Kelly says the United States must maintain a production target of 72 fighters per year and keep its allies at a comparable level of capability, as the latter will be critical force multipliers.
It offers a mix of 4+1 fighter forces for the 2030s, consisting of F-22, F-35, F-15EX, F-16 and A-10. The F-22 will be the primary air superiority platform to be supplanted by the upcoming Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.
The F-35 would be the workhorse for operations in contested airspace, supported by the F-15EX carrying long-range air-to-air weapons and 5th generation detection capabilities. The F-16s would be a general-purpose model, while the A-10 would retain its role as a ground-attack aircraft.
Unlike the United States, Xiaobing Li in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs notes that China has 1,800 fighters spread across each of its five theater commands and organized into seven to 10 fighter brigades with three to six combat groups. fighters, each group having 30 to 50 aircraft. Regarding training, the defense site Global Security notes that in 2017 Chinese fighter pilots flew 100 to 110 hours per year.
Considering the flight times reported by Global Security, there may not be much difference between the flight times of American and Chinese fighter pilots. However, Lyle Morris notes in a 2016 RAND article that Chinese fighter pilot training scenarios are heavily scripted and tied to ground control, making them potentially less responsive and adaptable to rapidly changing combat scenarios.
Morris notes that China has attempted to simulate unscripted scenarios with systemic reforms to train its pilots to fight and win against militarily superior adversaries such as the United States.
The J-20 is China’s most advanced stealth fighter in service. Photo: Twitter
He says China has given its pilots responsibility for making their flight plans and complete autonomy on their sorties. Still, Morris notes that it will take time to reform the rigid operational practices institutionalized in the Chinese air force.
In addition to reforming rigid training practices, China has accelerated its pilot training program, Liu Xuanzun notes in a July 2022 article for Global Times. Liu notes that under the old training program, student pilots needed four to six years of flight training to fly a fourth-generation fighter, but the new program reduces the period to three years.
This accelerated training program aims to match the record production rates of Chinese fighter jets. In a December 2021 article for Global Times, Liu Xuanzun notes that China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, under the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), has achieved record production of its carrier-based J-fighter. 15 and its J-16 multirole fighter. jet and even finished its production quotas early, despite the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the article did not divulge any specific production figures. Against the Americas’ 4+1 fighter force mix, China can field a combination of J-20 and FC-31 fifth-generation fighters; J-11, J-15 and J-16 heavyweight fighters in various configurations; and J-10 light fighters.
Moreover, in terms of qualitative improvements of its fighter aircraft, China has continued to improve the quality of its jet engines, which constituted a major handicap for its fighters, and to significantly improve its air-powered missiles. air to the point of surpassing Western models in some cases.
Kelly’s proposal to bolster the US fighter force is reminiscent of the Reagan administration’s 600-ship navy plan, which was intended to outcompete the Soviet navy.
US F-35, F-16, F-18, F-22 and F-15 jet planes flying in formation. Photo: Facebook / Popular Mechanics
The United States has achieved this massive shipbuilding program by investing in proven platforms and, at the same time, making critical investments in emerging technologies, notes Joseph Sims in an August 2022 article for the US Naval Institute.
While Kellys mentions tested platforms such as the F-15EX, F-16 and A-10 balanced with newer models such as the F-22 and F-35 may follow this logic, Sims warns that the United States- United cannot trade quality for quantity, which can give a false impression of real capacity and therefore security.
He also says that quantity is key and that there should be an absolute minimum number of combat units that strength levels are not allowed to drop below.
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