Yesterday, speaking at the Air Force's annual convention, Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula warned of the erosion of America's air dominance as more advanced aircraft and missiles proliferate.
Today, addressing the same audience, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the notion of a "fighter gap" is nonsense. Instead, the "more compelling gap" is the "deep chasm" that exists between ever more capable U.S. aircraft and that of other nations that will ensure U.S. air supremacy "far into the future."
The U.S. air fleet is projected to have more than 1,000 F-22s and F-35s before China even fields a fully operational fight-generation fighter, Gates said, and that lead will only grow well into the 2020s. DoD will spend $6.5 billion on upgrades to the F-22 fleet over the next few years so the advanced fighter will be "fully mission-capable." He said the objective is to equip the first F-35 training squadron by 2011 and achieve initial operating capability for the Marines and Air Force in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
The alleged fighter gap is based on "dated" assumptions about requirements and risk. "The definition of the requirement should be un-tethered from the current force structure and instead be defined by what I needed to defeat potential adversaries in plausible scenarios," he said. That is an allusion to the two major war force planning construct that has long been used by the services to justify maintaining certain force levels. The QDR is expected to do away with that construct and replace it with one that envisions fighting a single major conventional war while simultaneously waging one or more irregular wars.
Gates said the disparity between U.S. airpower and that of other nations is even greater when pilot quality and logistics support are factored in. "Last year the U.S. Air Force devoted one and a half million hours to flight training - not counting ongoing operations - and conducted roughly 35,000 aerial refueling missions. The Russian Air Force, by comparison, conducted some 30 refueling sorties."
There was a point of agreement on future threats between Deptula and the SecDef. Gates warned of the "anti-access" challenge posed by Chinese investments in anti-satellite weapons, ballistic missiles, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry. China's weapons modernization "could threaten" U.S. power projection in the Pacific by putting forward air bases and carrier strike groups at risk.
With China, "we should be concerned less with their potential ability to challenge the U.S. symmetrically - fighter to fighter or ship to ship - and more with their ability to disrupt our freedom of movement and narrow our strategic options," Gates said.