Minding the Competitor Gap

The capability gap between the US Air Force and near-peer nations has implications for the global military balance as well as conflicts USAF could find itself fighting in the near future, service leaders told Congress on Friday. Speaking before the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel on Feb. 27, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said both Russia and China have observed USAF’s model for air and space power projection and have moved to develop new and modernized aircraft and air defense programs to challenge long-standing US strengths. Within the next 10 years, portions of USAF’s legacy fleet will be at a disadvantage “in a number of scenarios” if current modernization trends in China continue, Welsh said. The danger is not necessarily in a potential faceoff with China or Russia, but the fact that both countries have deep and broad export markets. “There are 53 countries today that fly Russian and Chinese aircraft,” he pointed out to HAC-D Chair Rep. Rodney Freylingheusen (R-N.J.), and there is every indication that in a decade these aircraft will be as modern or better than the bulk of USAF’s present combat fleet if modernization plans are not maintained.