Secretary of the US Air Force (USAF) Frank Kendall is unequivocal about where his service is focusing its energy and budget.
“China, China, China,” Kendall said on 19 September during an event near Washington DC hosted by the Air & Space Forces Association (AFA). “I have been beating the drum on China’s military modernisation for many years.”
His comments come amid increasing tension between the USA and China, which just days ago levied sanctions on top executives at Boeing and Raytheon Technologies.
Kendall says threats posed by China are finally receiving appropriate concern in Washington following years of disinterest. The USAF, he adds, is orienting its budget and strategic focus toward the Indo-Pacific theatre – a shift aligning with broader Department of Defense (DoD) strategy.
The USAF’s fiscal year 2024 funding will reflect changes necessary to meet threats from advancing authoritarian powers, Kendall says. That budget remains unsettled, but USAF development projects include procurement of a new strategic bomber – Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider – and the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) programme to develop a sixth-generation combat aircraft. Kendall describes those modernisations as necessary to counter a “rapidly changing and competitive threat”.
Tension in Indo-China escalated in recent weeks after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August. China responded with military drills. In an interview aired on 18 September by news programme 60 Minutes, President Joe Biden confirms the USA would respond militarily to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
A recent analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded the USA would succeed at keeping China out of Taiwan – but at extraordinary cost. The study warns that the USA and allies could lose up to 900 aircraft. Of those, 90% could be destroyed on the ground, and USAF bases in Japan and Guam would be especially vulnerable to Chinese missile strikes, says Mark Cancian, who led the analysis.
Still, Washington appears more focused on deterring China than bracing for an inevitable conflict.
“China would be making an enormous mistake in invading Taiwan,” Kendall says. He sees no evidence any such action is imminent, but notes the risk of war increases as China’s People’s Liberation Army continues its multi-decade modernisation campaign.
The secretary also cautions Beijing about pitfalls encountered by Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Those include economic sanctions and unreliable assessments by Russia of its own military capabilities and those of Ukraine.
Kendall draws a clear connection between Beijing’s aggressive military drills and Russia’s attack against Ukraine, describing the Moscow and Beijing governments as “aggressive authoritarian powers”.
Kendall and his top generals say air power is decisive in countering such threats.
“If Russia would have had air superiority, we would not have been able to resupply Ukraine,” General James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, said on 19 September, also during the AFA event.
The Pentagon has provided Ukraine with more than $15 billion of equipment, ranging from precision munitions to aircraft spare parts.
Hecker, a Boeing F-15 pilot by training, says that if either Ukraine or Russia had air dominance, the outcome would have been decisive. “If you had air superiority, a lot of this war we’re seeing wouldn’t be happening,” he notes.
Still, generals caution that air dominance will not come easily to NATO or any US-led coalition in the Indo-Pacific. Advanced air defences like Russian’s SA-10 and SA-11 missiles pose a substantial challenge to radar-seeking Raytheon AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs) and fighters like Lockheed Martin F-35s.
“These integrated air defences are very hard to get through,” says Hecker. “We in NATO would have a very hard time.”
Hecker says Ukrainian air defence troops, who operate the same Soviet-era systems as Moscow, downed an estimated 55 Russian jets during the opening weeks of the war.
Meanwhile, Kendall also stresses the need for the USAF to address recruiting challenges, saying the service will meet enlistment goals this year but by a thinner margin than typical.
The USA’s FY2023 defence budget includes the largest pay increase in decades, which should help. The USAF is also cancelling plans to eliminate pay bonuses for speciality jobs like recruiters, and is seeking to offer improved child care at its bases.
Those efforts come as the USAF’s operational fleet has reached its smallest size in decades, according to analysts.