A fighter jet attached to an aviation brigade of the air force under the PLA Southern Theater Command taxies to the takeoff point prior to an air combat flight training exercise. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Wang Guoyun)

US military leaders are sounding the alarm.

And frankly speaking, they are between a rock and a hard place, as the saying goes.

China continues to move its military modernization timelines at a rate of change that is outpacing the once mighty United States.

The China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now has the largest aviation forces in the Indo-Pacific and the largest conventional missile capability in the world, and is actively fielding hypersonic missiles.

To address this dynamic issue, important stakeholders such as Congress, the White House and internal parties within the Department of Defense all need to be on the same page — but that is not happening.

America likes to be first at everything, especially the US Air Force — air superiority is their raison d’etre — but they aren’t, anymore.

While President Biden was telling world leaders at the UN, that he will confront China’s military and economic ambitions, and promised, “We are not seeking a new Cold War,” that message seemed to be a moot point, at a conference in National, Harbor, Maryland.

Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference on Monday, Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote said the US needs to modernize its forces now, divesting equipment that won’t stand up in a high-end fight, or face the reality that defeat is inevitable, Amy McCullough and John A. Tirpak at Air Force Magazine reported.

“I am very concerned about the direction of our force,” Hinote said.

“I lead the part of the Air Force that’s called Air Force futures. We call ourselves the voice of tomorrow’s Airmen. I am concerned that tomorrow’s Airmen will not have what they need to defend the nation in their time, if we don’t change now. We are out of time.”

Hinote said the Air Force is not having success in war games fought with today’s technology.

“What we’re finding is that in key areas of the competition between China and the United States … we’re pairing. In a few important areas, we’re behind — tonight. This is not a tomorrow problem. This is a today.”

This is an artist rendering of a B-21 Raider concept in a hangar at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D. Ellsworth AFB is one of the bases expected to host the new airframe. (Courtesy graphic by Northrop Grumman)

Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. in his keynote address, also pointed to the “Chinese problem.”

“The day after the last C-17 left Kabul, I was in the Indo-Pacific where a graver threat is manifesting, where the risk and stakes are high,” Brown said.

“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.

“We cannot wait for a catastrophic crisis, whether it be sudden or insidious, to drive change for the Air Force and the Joint Force. If we do, it will be too late.”

Hinote didn’t elaborate on the areas where the US is losing ground to China, but he did highlight what the service should do:

  • Modernize its two legs of the nuclear triad: For the Air Force, this includes the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent to replace the aging Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile and bringing on the new B-21 bomber.
  • Divest equipment that won’t stand up against a peer competitor: Hinote says the service can no longer afford to maintain seven fighter fleets and must reduce the force to just four fleets.
  • Invest in artificial intelligence. “We are going to need development pathways to field large amounts of autonomous — not just unmanned but fully autonomous — systems,” Hinote said. “That is part of our future.”

Echoing these future concerns, was Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who said the service does not have “a moment to lose.”

Kendall confessed his priorities are “China, China, and China”— and said the Air and Space Forces are the key national security instruments to match and deter China.

He revealed that the Air Force has five B-21 stealth bombers in production at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., factory — a first flight is slated for mid-2022.

The Biden administration’s funding request for further development of the program in the fiscal year 2022 budget was US$2.98 billion, up from the previous year’s approved US$2.84 billion.

“The program is making good progress to field real capability,” Kendall said. “This investment in meaningful military capabilities that project power and hold targets at risk anywhere in the world addresses my number one priority.”

China has also moved away from a “wise and prudent” policy of maintaining a credible “minimal deterrent” nuclear force, Kendall said, and he noted recent revelations in the press that China has embarked on a furious pace of building ICBMs and silos.

“Whether intended or not, China is acquiring a first-strike capability,” Kendall declared.

While “No one could rationally desire or plan to initiate a nuclear war” — and he said he’s convinced “China does not” — the missile-building program is cause for deep concern and creates the possibility of “a catastrophic mistake.”

Kendall said that since 2010, he’s been “pounding the drum about how serious a threat” China’s military modernization program is to “the ability of the United States to project power” in the Indo-Pacific.

Frank Kendall, 26th Secretary of the Air Force, speaks at the Air Force Association Air, Space & Cyber conference, Sept. 20, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. Photo by: Mike Tsukamoto.

China is “increasing inventory levels and the sophistication of their weapons and modernizing redundant systems throughout the kill chains that support their weapons,” he explained.

These include “hypersonic weapons, a full range of anti-satellite systems, plus cyber, electronic warfare, and challenging air-to-air weapons.”

The range of these weapons has gone from a few hundred miles to thousands to literally around the globe, he added, going “from a few high-value assets near [its] shores to the second and third island chains,” and most recently to intercontinental ranges and even to the potential for global strikes from space.

Kendall, a West Point graduate, said if the US is going to “win the ‘one fight’ to keep our freedom, it will be because of the success of our Air and Space Forces.”

“Only the Air and Space Forces have the ability to control the global high ground. Only the Air and Space Forces can project power on short notice to anywhere that it is needed.

“Only the Air and Space Forces have the ability to confront and defeat aggression immediately, wherever it occurs,” he said.

“Only the Air and Space Forces have the ability to come to the aid of our global allies and partners with little to no notice when and where aggression occurs.”

Sources: Air Force Magazine, Washington Post, National Defense