An F-15C Eagle fighter jet assigned to the Oregon Air National Guard’s 123rd Fighter Squadron approaches an in-flight refueling boom during Red Flag 18-1 over the Nevada Test and Training Range Feb. 7, 2018. Units from across the country along with members from the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force participated as Blue Forces in this year’s first Red Flag exercise.

The Air Force is looking to downsize and modernize its forces to prepare for war with top rivals.Pilots and fighters have to pivot from counterinsurgency to readiness for great-power competition.Aircraft needs, training, and readiness are shifting to prioritize what’s needed for a potential fight.

The US Air Force is overhauling its aircraft fleets, preparing them for a potential great-power fight, “a war that we’ve not ever seen the likes of before,” a general said recently.

With the possibility of conflict between the US and China in mind, aircraft fleets are being downsized, upgraded, and reconfigured. Pilots are being retrained, and airmen are being pivoted towards what’s needed for a possible conflict. It marks a shift away from the counterinsurgency warfare that has shaped aircraft fleets and pilot readiness for the past 20 years.

“The strategy is to modernize,” US Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Moore, the deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, explained last month at a CSIS panel discussion on Air Force priorities in an era of strategic competition.

“Forty-four percent of the fleets that we have in the Air Force are past their designed service life,” the general said. “When we went into Desert Storm, we had — just using the fighter portfolio as an exemplar — we had 4,000 fighters. They averaged eight years old. Our pilots were flying 18 to 20 hours a month. And, we were ready for great-power competition against the Russians.”

The US military has, however, spent much of the last two decades fighting wars in the Middle East, configuring its forces for key conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Counterinsurgency was a major priority for Pentagon, shaping reassessments on the US Air Force’s role among the US armed forces.

A RAND study from 2006 on “Air Power in the New Counterinsurgency Era” noted that the Air Force had to “take the lead in exploring how air power might work in combination with other military and civil instruments to help avert the development of an insurgency or perhaps to check a growing insurgency long enough to allow political and social initiatives the heart of any successful counterinsurgency strategy to take hold,” observing that, at the time, counterinsurgency intelligence and preparedness existed in the force but was “scattered and limited.”

After 20 years of prioritizing this kind of combat, and with the US turning its focus to rivals like China, the Air Force looks to need more than just a facelift.

“As we come out of counterinsurgency warfare and look to pivot towards peer competition or peer conflict with a very different adversary,” Moore said, “we have not 4,000 fighters, but 2,000. They average not eight years old, but 28 years old. Our pilots are flying not 18 to 20 hours a month but six to eight hours a month. And we’re ready not for great-power competition, but for counterinsurgency warfare.”

Pointing to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s remarks in September that the Air Force “must be ready for a kind of war we have no modern experience with,” the general said that it’s “absolutely true” that the US is facing the possibility of “a war that we’ve not ever seen the likes of before.”

U.S. Air Force crew chiefs from the 36th Fighter Generation Squadron run a maximum power check on an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Osan Air Base, South Korea, Sept. 7, 2023.

The Pentagon identifies China as America’s “pacing challenge,” recognizing that among potential adversaries, it poses the most potent threat.

In its annual report on China’s military power, the Department of Defense documented the expansion of the fighter fleet and improved capabilities. It also noted a sizeable increase in the arsenal of the Chinese missile force.

Officials have raised concern over increased hostility in the skies above the South and East China Seas, where Chinese fighter jets have been making aggressive and dangerous intercepts — flying alongside, over, or underneath US aircraft at exceptionally close distances, sometimes just a few feet — in recent years.

Since fall 2021, “we have seen more than 180 such incidents — more in the past two years than in the decades before that,” Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, revealed last fall. Experts have said the behavior indicates China’s increasing willingness to challenge US air power in the area.

Tensions have led both US and Chinese air forces to intensify pilot training for aerial combat. The focus on improved training comes from a realization that a fight with a near-peer or peer adversary has the potential to be far more complex and dangerous than anything seen in the Middle East.

Senior Air Force leaders have said that the US must be prepared for possible fights in contested environments with WWII-level combat attrition rates.

At a conference in September, Air Combat Command’s Gen. Mark Kelly said that the Air Force needs to offer airmen and other personnel “all the highest-end training and the reps and sets we can get them because we also know from high-end exercises and also other studies that not all of our airmen will come back from a peer fight.”

Two B-1B Lancers (not pictured) joined up with Republic of Korea air force F-15s during a 10-hour mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, into Japanese airspace and over the Korean Peninsula, July 30, 2017.

As the US armed forces shift priorities toward being ready for a near-peer or peer-level conflict, the Air Force is looking to shed what’s holding it back, Moore said.

“In the fighter enterprise, we’ll go from seven fleets down to two,” the general said. “In the bomber enterprise, we’ll go from four down to two. In the tanker enterprise, we’ll go from three down to two. Not with the purpose of getting rid of airplanes, but with the purpose of bringing down the average fleet age, bringing up the capabilities, and only fielding things that are relevant.”

Part of these planned changes are being driven by observations that the Chinese military is continuing to invest in and reform its air force, “rapidly catching up to Western air forces,” the Pentagon said in its recent report. That trend is “gradually” eroding the significant US advantage “in the air domain,” it added.

The Air Force secretary has said before that while legacy aircraft like the A-10 attack aircraft has served the US military well in the past, such as by providing close-air support to ground troops in the Middle East, these aircraft don’t “scare China.”

With the new priorities to counter new threats also comes a reinvestment in what airmen do.

“There are a lot of airmen in the Air Force that are not doing things that contribute to what we envision as the future task,” Moore said. “It’s not just about doing this efficiently. It’s about doing it effectively. And that means we’ve got to get those airmen and those dollars away from things that don’t mean anything to this task. And we’ve got to pivot them to the future.”

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