While the United States is still struggling with the F-35, China is upgrading its own air force. In the Pacific region, the Chinese should already have air sovereignty. The head of the US air combat command is now calling for a comprehensive upgrade of the air force.
So far, the United States has always been able to rely on not only having a certain technological superiority over the main global opponents, but also being in a much better position quantitatively. Given that Americans have spent more money on their military complex in recent years than all other countries in the top 10 combined, this is to be expected. In the Pacific region, however, the rearmament of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is causing a shift in the balance of power – especially with regard to the air force. This is now leading to calls to modernize and expand the US fleet of fighter jets.
U.S. Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark Kelly said at the U.S. Air Force Association’s annual aerospace and cyber conference this month that America’s fighter jets were missing 12 squadrons of multiple aircraft types, according to Air and Space Forces Magazine reported. He pointed out that the US has passed the era of conventional superiority and the US air force is only half what it was during the 1991 Gulf War. However, the exact number of aircraft is top secret. Combat squadrons generally consist of 18 to 24 jets.
“When you have conventional superiority, the strategic risk is low. But we’re not there with conventional deterrence,” Kelly said. He pointed out that while the US Air Force needs 60 fighter squadrons, it only has 48 available to carry out its homeland defense, overseas contingent, overseas presence and crisis response duties. The general added that while the US Air Force has nine A-10 ground attack aircraft squadrons, they lack air-to-air and dual-role combat capability.
Kelly said this fighter jet shortage is being felt most in the Pacific, where the US needs 13 fighter squadrons in that region but currently only has 11. As for the Rapid Reaction Forces, the US is short of five squadrons. Aside from the missing squadrons, Kelly mentions that only three out of eight squadrons will convert to new aircraft, resulting in a smaller, older, and less capable combat force. He also pointed out that the US fighter jet fleet is on average 28.8 years old, down from 9.7 in 1991, and that pilot readiness is down from 22.3 hours at just 9.7 flight hours per month before the 1991 Gulf War.
Kelly advocates a fighter jet fleet that discourages any adversary from contemplating war with the US, since no country in their right mind would take up combat with a country that had over 134 modernized, well-trained and well-equipped fighter squadrons available. To reach that troop level, Kelly said, the US must maintain a production target of 72 fighter jets per year and keep its allies at comparable capability levels, as the latter will be key force multipliers.
In contrast to the US, Xiaobing Li is im Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs states that China has 1,800 combat aircraft divided among each of its five theater commands and organized into seven to ten combat brigades with three to six combat groups, with each group having 30 to 50 aircraft. As for training, defense website Global Security notes that China’s fighter pilots logged 100 to 110 flight hours per year in 2017.
Considering the of Global Security Given the flight hours quoted, there may not be much of a difference between the flight hours of American and Chinese fighter pilots. Lyle Morris, however, poses in one RAND article from 2016 notes that Chinese fighter pilot training scenarios are heavily scripted and tied to ground control, potentially making them less responsive and less adaptable to rapidly changing combat scenarios. Morris notes that China has attempted to simulate unwritten scenarios with systemic reforms to train its pilots to fight and defeat militarily superior adversaries like the US. This could well play a major role in the event of a military conflict over Taiwan.