American ability to establish air superiority in the 2020s against China and Russia will not be assured and the US could have a fighter gap in the 2030s

Rand Corporation had a study that in 2017 it would take 10 to 20 times the number of US planes to achieve 50% attrition of the Chinese airforce in a conflict in the South China Sea compared the number of planes needed to achieve the same goals in 1996. Each airwing has 72-aircraft.

It would take around ten times as many planes to achieve military objectives in a conflict over Taiwan comparing 2017 to 1996.

America’s current air supremacy rests on the F-15 fighter fleet complemented by small numbers of F-22s. The elderly F-15s are though having problems handling the latest, new-build Russian and Chinese fighters. In assessing performance against the Russian Su-35 fighter (now being acquired by China), the National Interest’s Dave Majumdar observes: “Overall, if all things were equal, even a fully upgraded F-15C with the latest AESA upgrades would have its hands full . . . .”

As regards the much higher performance F-22, only about ninety are available for global air supremacy tasks. This is arguably too small for winning air supremacy in one theater, let alone both Europe and the Pacific. Ongoing peacetime training attrition is further gradually reducing this small fleet.

Some consider the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will in time address declining air supremacy. Countering this sanguine view, the worrying RAND study earlier noted included the F-35 (and the F-22) albeit not the new Chinese J-20 or J-31 stealth aircraft. This study, in looking at 2017, may actually understate what China will be capable of later this decade when it has more than 1,000 advanced fighters in service.

So what? Does air supremacy matter? Air supremacy will not win a war but it will stop a war being lost. America has not won a war without air supremacy—a point that has been widely recognised. It’s no surprise that China sees air superiority as one of the key “Three Superiorities” that can decide a conflict’s outcome. Nor is it a surprise that a major part of Russia’s force modernisation is fighter development and procurement.

An alternative between doing nothing and the new fighters arriving in 2035: doing as President Reagan did. Similarly faced with declining American capabilities, Reagan decided in 1981 to restart production of the B-1 and C-5 boosting near-term capabilities. Today, thirty years after Reagan’s decision, the B-1 remains essential and the C-5 provides the USAF’s primary dedicated strategic airlift capability.

The Reagan solution, call it the Gipper play, would be to restart F-22 production and build another two hundred or so. This would confidently fill the air supremacy gap between now and 2040.

SOURCES – Rand, National Interest