A senior US Air Force (USAF) general recently highlighted the shortage of sophisticated fighters needed to deter China, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, urging the Pentagon to keep upgrading its fighter aircraft.
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The head of US Air Combat Command, General Mark Kelly, said that China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) had almost caught up with the USAF through the rapid deployment of advanced fighter jets.
“By any measure, we have departed the era of conventional overmatch,” Kelly said in a speech at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference on September 21.
“When you have conventional overmatch, strategic risk is low. But that’s not where we’ve arrived in conventional deterrence,” he said.
Lack Of Sufficient Squadron Strength
Kelly said the USAF needs 60 squadrons of multirole fighters to fulfill all its responsibilities, including homeland defense, overseas contingencies, overseas presence, and crisis response. At present, the service only has 48 squadrons.
He noted that while there are additional nine squadrons of A-10s, they are attack aircraft and lack multirole capability, which is why they cannot be plugged into the global force management scheme, as combat commanders require multirole aircraft for fulfilling a variety of missions, which the A-10 cannot do.
Most notably, Kelly said that the shortages were mainly felt in Pacific Air Forces, which needs 13 squadrons but fields only 11, and in crisis response forces, it is five squadrons short of requirements.
Furthermore, the senior US general also pointed out the insufficient number of squadrons transitioning to new aircraft, saying eight squadrons should be undergoing that process instead of only three.
“If there is an insufficient number in conversion, that means your fighter force is getting smaller, getting older, becoming less capable, or all three,” he said.
On the contrary, the PLAAF has gone from a rudimentary air force to one that has nearly caught up with the USAF through the rapid, “iterative” deployment of better aircraft and distinguished capabilities.
Kelly also warned that there are “fourth-generation aircraft with fifth-generation capabilities,” and it is becoming too simplistic to categorize aircraft. He said that older aircraft are outfitted with increasingly advanced sensors and weapons.
He argued that there is not a choice between capacity and quality for the USAF, recalling how during the World War 2 (WW2), Germany fielded rocket planes, jet fighters, jet bombers, and rudimentary inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) — truly advanced capability — yet got “destroyed,” because it failed to have enough air force assets.
“What I’m arguing for,” Kelly said, is a force that will discourage any potential opponent from contemplating a war with the US.
“Who wants to pick a fight with a nation that has 134 fighter squadrons” that are modernized, well-equipped, and well trained, he said. “No nation in their right mind.”
According to Kelly, the USAF must be able to field at least 72 new fighters annually, and even the US allies and partners must be kept at a comparable level of capability.
India Faces Similar Problems
The latest remarks by the senior American general are alarming when viewed together with similar problems faced by India, which is also concerned about the threat posed by China. India has an even bigger problem, as it faces a two-front challenge posed by China and Pakistan.
Therefore, the Indian Air Force (IAF) requires 42 fighter squadrons, with each squadron fielding 18-20 aircraft, to protect India’s northern and eastern borders with Pakistan and China.
According to various reports, the IAF has 31-33 squadrons, and the service can only get a maximum of 35 squadrons in the next ten years.
To achieve the 35 Squadrons by 2035, the IAF will have to procure 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk1A, 114 Multirole Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) from foreign companies, and 106 Middle Weight Fighter (MWF) Tejas Mk2, and at least 40 Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, both of which are currently under development.
Even the slight variance from these plans could leave the IAF 4-5 Squadrons short of its target, which could mean around 100 combat jets less in the inventory.
As EurAsian Times has discussed earlier, the rising cost of acquisitions and decreasing budgetary allocations have restrained the IAF’s capacity to procure new fighter jets.
The service maintains many fighters in operational condition well beyond their service life to hold on to the numbers close to the desired strength.
Nevertheless, as time passes, the total technical life of most of the existing squadrons is expiring, and consequently, the squadron strength is progressively depleting.
In December 2017, Nirmala Sitharaman, the defense minister at the time, said in Parliament, “ten squadrons of IAF equipped with MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft are scheduled to retire by 2024 on completion of their total technical life (TTL).”
Meanwhile, the Chinese PLAAF has been inducting a massive number of 4.5 and 5th-generation fighter jets per year.
By 2035, it is expected to have at least 90% of its jets comprising the 4.5 and 5th-generation, most probably newly built, and possibly even a few 6th-generation fighter jets.