The United States is in grave danger of losing a potential conflict with China if the Air Force cannot dispose of old equipment and quickly restore a substantial edge in air control, according to U.S. officials concerned about the speed of reequipping the USAF.
Speaking at an Air Force Association (AFA) conference on Tuesday, retired Air Force Gen. Douglas Raaberg warned that the U.S. Air Force and Space Force are currently operating some of the oldest equipment in their history, and time is not on its side in the race to equip itself in time for any potential conflict with near-peer adversaries.
Raaberg, the current executive vice president of the AFA, said that the forces are smaller and poorly financed to satisfy the national security strategy’s goals.
Raaberg cautioned that the U.S. Air Force, Space Force, and military contractors needed to move far more quickly to equal and, if necessary, catch up with other countries breakthroughs in aerospace and associated technology.
“Time is not on our side, he said, adding that “Accelerating acquisition is key to challenging our strategic competitors.”
During the conference, Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, said that he agreed with General Raaberg’s sense of urgency and that the USAF wanted to provide key capabilities for future success by mid-decade
In March, commenting on President’s 2023 budget proposal, the AFA said the situation is especially perilous due to China’s quicker pace of capability and capacity growth. The organization said the funds fell well short of the needs of the national defence plan. It would compel the Air Force to lose vital capabilities while forgoing major weapon acquisitions.
Does USAF face challenges in technology, equipment and funding?
“His ( Raaberg) comments may have been to echo something that Air Combat Command Chief Gen. Mark Kelly highlighted, that the “U.S. has lost its conventional overmatch” and thereby lost “conventional deterrence”. He was referring to being short of 12 squadrons of multi-role aircraft, and that readiness was also suffering with the pilot flying hours reducing compared to pre-Desert Storm levels. If the U.S. conventional armed forces were large enough, with relatively new, modern aircraft and well trained, with their allies on comparable levels, the threat of potential adversary wouldn’t arise,” says Mathew George, PhD. Practice Head, Aerospace, Defense and Security at GlobalData.
There is an argument in the U.S. that while its rivals invest in new military gear, the United States is forced to refurbish old weapons. While the Department of Defense attempts to keep up with the private sector’s fast technological advancements, the discussion is primarily centred on the purchase of technology. But, there is a lack of debate on inventive techniques for discarding the older technology. Replacing and upgrading older systems with costly new features, loosely called “gold-plating”, seems the safest method right now. The B-1 bomber demonstrates how instead of adapting investments to new circumstances, like Russia deploying S-400 systems, the previous conception of the manned strategic bomber was outfitted with more costly technology. Such phenomena occur with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and are being explored for the F-22 Raptor as well. They risk producing expensive, obsolete platforms that impede force structure.
But statistics show a different view. “36% of the USAF’s airborne fleet (fixed-wing aircraft, rotorcraft, UAVs) is less than 20 years old, which is a decent figure considering a large number of airborne platforms in service. A majority of the ageing airborne platforms also have undergone modernization and service life extension, which includes the retrofit of advanced weapons to enhance their combat capabilities,” says Sai Kiran Gone, a defence analyst at GlobalData.
“We anticipate that the USAF may retire most of their aircraft which are nearing 50 years of life and above, which include A-10C Thunderbolt II, E-3 Sentry, E-4B Nightwatch, F-15 Eagle, and KC-135R/T among others,” says Sai.
At the same time, The USAF is inducting newer projects to beat the obsolesce. “Major ongoing programs of the USAF include MH-139A, HH-60W, Skyborg, MQ-9 Reaper, B-21 Raider, F-35A, F-15EX, KC-46A, EC-37 Compass Call and Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), among others. The USAF is also expected to induct next-generation Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to replace the ageing fleet of E-3 Sentry,” says Tushar Mangure, another Defense Analyst at GlobalData.
AFA’s funding rhetoric is not totally out of sync with the statistics. “It has been observed that some of the aircraft which were scheduled for retirement is not going to happen as per plan due to budget constraints. For instance, F-16s and F-22s were earlier scheduled for retirement in 2025, but due to budget constraints coupled with delays in the F-35s deliveries, USAF is planning to fly these aircraft for another decade or so. There have also been recent reports that say the EC-37 program is underfunded. However, it is also known that the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) had increased funds for the program for four additional (EC-37B Compass) aircraft from the USAF ask in 2023,” says Sai.
But the budgets have only increased in the past few years. “In addition, when we look at the budget allocation for the last five years, we can see a positive trend in the budget allocation for Air Force, and there has been a significant growth when compared to the Navy and the Army. The budget allocation for Air Force has increased from 33% in 2019 to 36% in 2023,” says Tushar.
Is China catching up fast?
The Chinese and the Russian Air and Space forces are catching up on technology, but neither the sophistication nor the numbers are enough to match USAF.
“The USAF operates some of the most sophisticated combat aircraft in the world, such as F-22, F-35, and B-2. Whereas the Russian and Chinese Armed Forces have recently started inducting similar stealth aircraft such as Su-57 and J-20. The U.S. also has multiple programs for developing and procuring next-gen combat aircraft, such as the B-21 and NGAD, which will also supplement the existing fleet of modern aircraft over the coming years. The affinity for R&D and induction of technologically advanced aircraft, backed by the robust manufacturing ecosystem, is also expected to be a vital factor in determining the capabilities of the USAF in the near future. Additionally, the USAF inducted low observable aircraft into their service in the mid-1980s and has considerable operational experience. We believe that the technological gap between these forces will reduce over the next five years; however, we don’t see major changes in terms of operational capabilities among these countries,” says Tushar.