Is the US Facing a ‘Fighter Gap’ With China and Russia?
Policy + Politics

Is the US Facing a ‘Fighter Gap’ With China and Russia?

REUTERS/Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti

The Air Force’s top general is warning Congress that one day soon the U.S. might not be able to keep pace with Russia and China when it comes to producing and fielding next-generation fighter jets.

In two Capitol Hill appearances this week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh sounded the alarm about the advancements Beijing and Moscow have made with their military aircraft, progress that threatens to erase Washington’s vaunted technological edge.

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Today, the U.S. has “couple thousand more” warplanes than China, but “at the rate they’re building, the models they’re fielding, by 2030 they will have fielded—they will have made up that 2,000 aircraft gap and they will be at least as big—if not bigger—than our air forces,” Welsh told the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee on Wednesday.

Besides the number of jets, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) today boasts 325,000 personnel, slightly more than the U.S., Beijing is rolling out new fighter variants and other advanced weaponry regularly, the four-star warned.

“We are not keeping up with that kind of technology development,” he told the panel. “We are still in a position of—we will have the best technology in the battlespace especially if we can continue with our current big three modernization programs,” including the new B-21 bomber and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, “but they will have a lot of technology that's better than the stuff we've had before.”

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Welsh raised the Russian specter on Thursday when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“An Air Force that doesn't stay ahead of the technology curve will fail. Fifty-three countries today are flying Russian fighters around the world. They will export their new capabilities as they field them, and their new capabilities will be better than our old stuff,” he said.

Together, the testimonies are reminiscent of the “missile gap,” a Cold War phrase used by defense hawks to decry the number of missiles the Soviet Union possessed compared with the U.S. – a gap that later turned out to be bogus.

Welsh, who is slated to retire this year after 40 years in the service, could be trying to get funding beyond the Air Force’s proposed $120 billion budget for fiscal year 2017 by breaking down complex strategic problems -- Russia’s vast military modernization push, China’s emergence as a global military power – into a one-for-one competition that the U.S. has no choice but to win.

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And he seems to have a receptive audience.

Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) kicked off Thursday’s hearing by lamenting that “potential adversaries are developing and fielding fifth-generation fighters, advanced air defense systems and sophisticated space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities that are rapidly shrinking America's military technological advance and holding our aircraft at greater risk over greater distances.”

Welsh’s two-pronged argument, on production and technology, could prove a winning combo that sees the Air Force get some or all of the $2.85 billion “wish list” it recently submitted to Congress. That would allow the service to buy more F-35s and cargo aircraft, or win approval for its pricey procurement and modernization efforts.

The four-star general certainly drove home the idea that Congress shouldn’t trifle with either country.

“They're serious air forces, and they're serious about getting better…, General Welsh told House lawmakers. “Not modernizing our Air Force is not an answer that's acceptable.”