By John A. Tirpak
The alarming speed of China’s military advance is fueling new urgency in the Air Force to accelerate modernization and deter Beijing from military aggression. American primacy is in jeopardy, service leaders warned at AFA’s 2021 Air, Space & Cyber Conference (ASC21).
“We are being more effectively challenged than at any other time in our history,” said Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall. China’s air force is at parity, and in some cases holds an edge over the U.S., he said, noting that China’s nuclear forces are “acquiring a first-strike capability.”
Over and over, speakers at the conference cited the urgent need to respond. “There is not a moment to lose,” Kendall said, calling for modernization across the entire air and space portfolio, from air operations to space and the electromagnetic spectrum. As Secretary, Kendall said, his top priorities, “in order … are China, China, and China.”
In a briefing for reporters, Air Force futurist Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said China is no longer a future challenge. China used to be a problem “10, 15 years out in the future,” Hinote said. Now “it is a current problem,” and absent a major modernization push, USAF faces the likelihood of defeat in a war with China.
Hinote emphasized that the Chinese air force is already “at parity … in key areas” with the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force, and in a few “important areas we’re behind, tonight,” although he didn’t offer specifics.
“The light is blinking red,” Hinote told reporters. “We are out of time.”
China has the largest air force in the Indo-Pacific and the largest inventory of conventional missiles in the world, said Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. It is also advancing its power-projection capability with new bases worldwide. Brown said he expects China to make good on its plans to be fully modernized by 2035 and “world class” by 2050.
“China continues to move its modernization timelines left at a rate that is outpacing” the U.S., Brown said in his conference address. “We must move with a sense of urgency today in order to rise to the challenges of tomorrow, because the return to strategic competition is one of our nation’s greatest challenges.”
Brown said the threat posed by this new strategic competition can be “just as catastrophic” as a sudden, 9/11-type attack. Delaying action now means the Air Force will be “too late” to confront it later.
Already, the Air Force faces the risk of not being able to achieve air superiority in a fight with China, a prospect commander of Air Combat Command Gen. Mark D. Kelly warned would be disastrous. The American way of war assumes control of the air, he said, and the other armed forces depend on that. He called for a national response on the scale of the Manhattan Project to restore a formidable lead over China in air combat capability.
As America’s “apex peer adversary,” Kelly continued, China has created a government ministry with the singular goal of wresting air supremacy away from the United States. China is “not debating” the matter, but moving deliberately to accomplish it, he stated, warning ominously that if China fields “sixth-generation” fighter capability first—aircraft that go well beyond today’s fifth-generation F-22 and F-35—“it will end badly” for the U.S.
The U.S. must also gird for more difficult and costly conflicts, Kelly warned, saying China’s military is “designed to inflict more casualties in the first 30 hours of combat than we’ve endured over the last 30 years in the Middle East.”
China’s rise drove Kendall to “work hard to get this specific job,” he said, because if the U.S. is going to win the biggest fight “to keep our freedom, it will be because of the success of our air and space forces.”
As a West Point grad and 11-year Army officer, he respects the contributions of the other services, but “without control of the space and air domains, their missions become all but unexecutable,” he said.
The Air and Space Forces control the “global high ground,” can project power anywhere on the planet on short notice, and are able to “confront and defeat aggression immediately, wherever it occurs,” Kendall said. Only the air and space forces can come to the aid of allies and partners “with little to no notice.”
Still, he said, to deter or defeat China, “we are going to have to change.” China and Russia studied the American way of war intensively for 30 years, and developed “asymmetric steps to exploit our vulnerabilities and to defeat us.”
Addition By Subtraction
Kendall called on Congress to stop its reflexive rejection of USAF efforts to divest aging aircraft that are irrelevant to the China fight, and said the Air Force must be empowered to focus on developing the war-winning force structure it needs.
“The Air Force will not succeed against a well-resourced and strategic competitor if we insist on keeping every legacy system we have,” he stated. Retiring unneeded assets now frees up funds to invest in new capabilities and manpower to take on new missions.
During his confirmation hearings, senators told Kendall they agreed with his view that USAF must reconfigure to deal with China, but “in the same breath” opposed USAF efforts to retire “take your pick—C-130s, A-10s, KC-10s, or MQ-9s—in that senator’s state,” he recalled.
While Kendall said he understands the “constraints” of constituent politics, “we need to find a better mechanism to make the changes we need. We must move forward.”
In a press conference, he told reporters he’s hopeful about a proposal from Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, designed to break the logjam surrounding divestitures by using a mechanism similar to that used in the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. Lawmakers would face a single up or down vote on a whole package of divestitures in his plan, rather than being allowed to tinker with what happens on any given base. This approach would give members cover from constituents seeking to punish any perceived lack of support for jobs back home.
The Air Force especially will adhere to the “one team, one fight” mantra put forth by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, Kendall said. The Air Force and Space Force will continue to support each other, even as they support the other services to jointly provide “integrated deterrence.”
All the services depend on the Air Force’s kinetic airpower, mobility, and tanking capabilities, he noted, and they likewise depend on Space Force for “resilient surveillance capabilities.” Space Force will continue to provide services such as navigation, timing and weather, and is moving forward with a new Space-Based “Ground and Surface Moving Target Indicator,” Kendall said, as well as a new “resilient space architecture” writ large. The Air and Space Forces together will continue to “enable the terrestrial services to perform their missions.”
Kelly said 20 years fighting a war that never challenged the Air Force gave China time to focus on “the high-end fight, and fighting us,” and he singled out advances made by both China and Russia in electromagnetic spectrum operations. Paraphrasing British Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery’s injunction that a military that can’t control the air will be swiftly defeated, Kelly said, “If we lose the war in the electromagnetic spectrum, we lose the war in the air, and we lose it fast.”
The Fighter Roadmap
Kelly laid out the Air Force’s plans for its future fighter force, reducing from today’s seven-fighter fleet to a “four-plus-one” scheme revealed earlier this year:
- The F-22 air superiority fighter will remain in the fleet until about 2030, when it will make a “hot handover” to the Next-Generation Air Dominance platform;
- The F-35 will be the “cornerstone” of the force;
- The F-15E and F-15EX will provide capacity and muscle;
- The F-16 will be a capacity-builder; and
- The A-10 will be the “plus one,” retiring in the early 2030 time frame, when it will no longer be able to survive modern air combat.
In a press conference, Kelly said he doesn’t understand the debate over whether to pursue both the fifth-generation F-35 and what he called the “4.5 generation” F-15EX, with its new flight controls, computers, and electronic warfare systems.
“I need both,” Kelly said flatly, with the F-15EX needed to quickly replace retiring F-15Cs that were worn out over the course of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and are now becoming unsafe to fly.
Kendall on Hypersonics
Kendall was skeptical of some USAF programs and promised a “deep dive” to ensure the service is getting full value for its investment dollar. “Unsatisfied” with the Air Force’s hypersonic missile programs, which suffered a series of failures in recent tests, he noted that China and Russia have already fielded such capabilities. He also expressed frustration with “the degree to which we’ve figured out what we need” from hypersonic technology.
China and Russia have a “pretty clear” vision for hypersonics, but there is “still a question mark” as to how hypersonic weapons fit with the Air Force’s strategy, Kendall said. He wants more comprehensive analysis to drive decisions about which weapons are needed for what missions, and also how many are needed to ensure a robust and meaningful capability. Kendall echoed previous Pentagon leaders and analysts who’ve questioned plans to acquire limited numbers of hypersonic missiles, at potentially more than $10 apiece, for a fight with China that could run into thousands of targets.
Kelly told reporters hypersonic weapons offer a chance to hit targets swiftly, from great range, but that even during their abbreviated time of flight, mobile targets can move. Acknowledging that the Air Force needs “fifth-generation weapons” to go with its fifth-gen fighters, Kelly said hypersonic weapons are not the only option.
“We will get there,” Kendall said. First “we have to solve the problem … of where we’re trying to go—and then get there as quickly as possible.”
Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., who leads Air Force Materiel Command, told reporters that AFMC will “continue to put our focus” on hypersonic weapons. “We will continue to take … educated risks as we move forward, so that we can get a capability out in the field,” he said.
Kelly agrees USAF should have an “unambiguous” concept of operations for hypersonic weapons. “We should make sure, before we pull the trigger and commit resources to it, [that] everybody’s on the same sheet of music,” he said.
One area where Kendall appears to be applying the brakes is on the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), a signature initiative of the prior administration. He has questioned whether the service is adequately “focused on achieving and fielding specific, measurable improvements in operational outcomes,” as opposed to conducting useful but unfocused experiments. Congress has also viewed ABMS as scattershot, slashing funding requests for ABMS in each of the past two years.
Hinote said Kendall is asking “tough questions” about ABMS, and admitted that “in some cases, our answers weren’t very good.” But Hinote also emphasized the underlying need, not only for the Air Force, but for the joint force, saying he couldn’t see how the U.S. can win a war without it.
Lt. Gen. Duke Z. Richardson, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official, said ABMS represents a “portfolio” of programs, rather than a single system, and that the connectivity provided in its Increment One capability is essential. “If we do nothing else,” he said, Increment One is “worth doing.” Richardson said the same will be true of Increment Two. USAF is “waiting for some ‘big bang’ ” ABMS operational introduction, he said.
Brown, Richardson, and others praised Kendall’s intellect and experience as major additions for the Department of the Air Force. “We won the jackpot,” Richardson said, citing Kendall’s acquisition, policy, and Pentagon experience. Having led the Pentagon’s acquisition oversight, Kendall’s unique insight into all the services’ programs of record gives him a firm grounding that has enabled him to hit the ground running.
No major program has escaped Kendall’s gaze, Richardson said. “He wants to make sure that we’re focused on [China] … from the perspective of the warfighter and the taxpayer,” he said. “So we are trying to make sure that we are really laser-focused on that.”