US Air Force general says more sophisticated fighter jets are needed to deter China


The US has lost its “conventional overmatch” to maintain deterrence over China’s air force, a senior US Air Force general warned on Wednesday as he urged the Pentagon to keep upgrading its fighter jets.

General Mark Kelly, the head of the Air Combat Command, which is primarily responsible for Air Force combat forces, said the People’s Liberation Army air force had nearly caught up to the US Air Force through the rapid deployment of better aircraft with greater capabilities.

“By any measure, we have departed the era of conventional overmatch,” Kelly said in a speech at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference, according to a release from the organisation.

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“When you have conventional overmatch, strategic risk is low. But that’s not where we’ve arrived in terms of conventional deterrence.”

General Mark Kelly, head of the Air Combat Command for the US Air Force. Photo: USAF

Kelly said that the air force has 48 squadrons of what he termed “multirole” fighters, but that the force needs 60 squadrons to meet all the responsibilities it carries: homeland defence, overseas presence and contingencies and crisis response.

The shortages, he said, were most significant in the Pacific Air Forces, the air component of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command.

“What I’m arguing for,” Kelly said, was a force that would discourage any potential adversary from even contemplating a war with the US.

“Who wants to pick a fight with a nation that has 134 fighter squadrons that are modernised, well equipped and well trained?” he asked. “No nation in their right mind.”

In the next three to five years we’ll ... see the extension of runways on small islands in the Pacific
General Kenneth Wilsbach, Pacific Air Forces

Kelly contended that the US must maintain a pace of fielding “at least 72 new fighters a year” and also keep allies and partner countries at a “comparable level of capability”.

While the US military has become alarmed at China’s growing capabilities, views remain diverse in assessing the gap between the two countries.

The military rivalry between the two nations continues to ramp up as tensions have grown – especially in the Taiwan Strait, which is increasingly seen as a flashpoint for any potential conflict.

At another panel at the event, though, the commander of the Pacific Air Forces said he was “really confident” that the US could respond successfully “to a Chinese attack on Taiwan”.

General Kenneth Wilsbach said that his forces had been conducting what he called an agile combat employment doctrine in their theatre “almost every day now”.

General Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of the Pacific Air Forces. Photo: USAF

The doctrine enables rapid deployments across dispersed air operations, complicating an adversary’s targeting challenge and expanding airfield facilities for added fuel and weapons storage.

“In the next three to five years we’ll also see the extension of runways on small islands in the Pacific, including around the Guam cluster,” Wilsbach said.

“This is all being done to counter China’s capability to put missiles in places we’d like to operate.”

China’s ambitions for North Pacific a ‘concern’ for key US military buffer: report

Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared his ambition to make the People’s Liberation Army a “world class” military power by mid-century.

The US maintains its edge with more than 13,000 military aircraft, including the F-35 Lightning and F-22 Raptor, which are among the most advanced combat jets in the world, according to the 2022 World Air Forces Report by the aviation website Flight Global.

China has the third-largest air force, with 3,285 aircraft, according to the report.

Even so, US analysts warned that Washington must keep pace with Beijing on military spending, and the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power last year said that China’s nuclear arsenal was growing faster than US officials anticipated.

As part of the PLA military exercises that followed US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, Beijing sent more than 100 warplanes, including their most advanced stealth fighter, the J-20, and the new aerial oil tanker, the Y-20U, across the strait.

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