General Herbert J. Carlisle before a US House Armed Services Committee hearing. | US House Armed Services Committee
In a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, General Herbert J. Carlisle, the Commander of Air Combat Command, expressed concern over the current progress in the modernization of the US Air Force.
" … We are flying near and within the weapons envelope of those that could test our dominance," Carlisle explained in a statement.
"The lead we have is shrinking as our near peer adversaries, and countries with which they proliferate, have developed, likely stolen, and fielded state-of-the-art systems."
Carlisle cited numerous factors, such as limited resources, in the stagnating state of combat readiness. According to the Air Force, examples include six consecutive years of cuts that would reduce the number of F-35 combat squadrons by 50% by 2028, the divestment of 3,000 aircraft and 200,000 Airmen since Operation Desert Storm, and a reduction of $24 billion in funding for precision attack weapons — about 45% less weapons capacity.
Furthermore, Carlisle pinpointed outdated equipment, such as the AIM-120 medium-range missile, as a disturbing factor. As the Air Force's primary air-to-air missile, it originally entered service with the F-15C in 1991. According to the official, in addition to the advancement of AIM-120 counter-measures by other nations, this outdated missile also limits the capabilities of newer aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
"It also carries insufficient range versus newer long range adversary missiles and will soon require recapitalization," Carlisle explained in a statement. "We are currently delivering 4th Gen weapons from 5th Gen platforms, and even those weapons inventories are being depleted beyond the current campaign requirements."
An AIM-120 AMRAAM being loaded onto an F-16CJ. | US Air Force
Besides the threat of more budget cuts, there's also another threat emerging from a different front — the modernization of the air forces in other countries. These threats include the development of their own 5th generation fighters, anti-space weapons, and new surface-to-air weapon systems that are claimed to possess the ability to acquire, track, and target the US' stealth aircraft.
"It now comes as no surprise that our near peer adversaries' capabilities have been modernized to specifically counter and negate American capabilities," Carlisle stated. "Many other nations, Russia and China in particular, copy very well — original thought: they're not as good."
Though Carlisle maintains that many of these advancements were obtained through dubious means, the results are clear enough to have a reason for alarm.
The general illustrated this claim by showing how similar China's J-31 stealth fighter was to the US' F-35. With advanced stealth, supercruise capabilities, and innovative data-link technology, many officials are also growing concerned at how rapidly, and accurately, the Air Force's imitators are emulating their counterparts.
China's J-31 (F60) at the 2014 Zhuhai Air Show. | Wikimedia Commons
"They've watched our success and they know how good we are … They'll steal technology so they avoid the challenges that we faced," he explained in the hearing.
In order to address these insufficiencies, Carlisle proposed boosting the Air Force's air, space, and cyber capabilities — most likely through increased funding — to compete in highly contested environments.
"Although a program is not yet in place, it will be paramount to continue modernizing our fleet, and progress to the next new counter-air aircraft that is more survivable, lethal, has a longer range, and bigger payload in order to maintain a gap with our adversaries," he concluded.