Russia and China are studying American air power over Syria and Iraq, and US Air Force generals are worried they have already learned too much.

In the past, the US competed against the Soviet Union’s brute force and China’s overwhelming numbers, but the two adversaries could soon outpace the US with more sophisticated and wider reaching surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. As the US has ramped up airstrikes against ISIS over the past two years, its peer adversaries have been watching and finding ways to close their capability gaps, says two top USAF generals – the deputy chief of staff for operations and deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

“We have to stop thinking like the champion and start thinking like the contender,” Lt Gen Mark Nowland, who handles operations, told an audience on Capitol Hill on 4 January “Our competitors are not only imitating us, they’re improving upon what we’ve done.”

Russia has gained valuable information operating in a contested airspace alongside the US over Syria and are incorporating those lessons in their strategy, says Lt Gen VeraLinn Jamieson, the USAF’s ISR chief.

In Syria, the USAF has observed Russia increase its use of precision guided munitions and fly longer sorties of up to 18-24h, Jamieson says. Meanwhile, Chinese forces have pushed their bombers for hours longer and have integrated their airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and refueling capabilities, she adds. With a newly established foreign base in Djibouti, China will have a unique opportunity to monitor US operations in the region.

“Our adversaries are watching us,” she says. “The skies over Iraq and specifically Syria have really just been a treasure trove to see how we operate. We also know we’re watched when we conduct operations off various coasts and also over the Korean peninsula.”

While Russia is not employing PGMs in the same way as the USA, they’re using the munitions at a much greater rate, Jamieson says. Syria has become a testing ground for not only munitions, but aircraft and cruise missiles.

“They have fired off cruise missiles, they have fire off air to air missiles, they have used long range aviation,” she says. “They have conducted their first what I would characterise as their first away game as a complete and continuous employment arena.”