US Air Force Reoptimizes in Face of Growing Threats From the CCP

US Air Force Reoptimizes in Face of Growing Threats From the CCP
U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets fly in formation during U.S.-Philippines joint air force exercises dubbed Cope Thunder at Clark Air Base in Mabalacat, Pampanga province, Philippines, on May 9, 2023. (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Stephen Xia

U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall announced changes to the capabilities of the air and space forces to confront the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the western Pacific.

At the AFA Warfare Symposium from Feb. 12 to 14, Mr. Kendall unveiled plans to reorganize and reoptimize the air and space forces to ensure capabilities to combat U.S. adversaries, such as China in particular. The effort is known as Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition.

The Air Force and Space Force announced 24 changes as a part of the initiative, which involves creating a new Integrated Capabilities Office, new command centers, and launching a new approach to nuclear weapons management. Such changes were mainly aimed at confronting China’s threat of war in the Pacific.

“We are out of time,” Mr. Kendall said regarding China’s aggressive military build-up. “Why do I say that? It’s not that I enjoy sounding like a broken record. It’s because, for at least two decades, China has been building a military that is designed, purpose-built, to deter and defeat the United States if we intervene in the western Pacific.”

Some of those changes are specific, short-term goals, while the majority of them are still quite vague and may take more time to achieve.

New Priorities

The creation of the new Integrated Capabilities Office will help the Air Force identify and develop new military concepts and programs. Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Kristyn E. Jones said that the Integrated Capabilities Command will help the Air Force identify priorities in technology development and new combat requirements.

The Air Combat Command (ACC) will expand to focus on Air Force-wide readiness and large-scale exercises and ensure that the combat coalition can meet the requirements for effective military deployments.

In addition, Air Force Cyber Command will be upgraded to a separate service command to reflect better the importance of cybersecurity to the air and space forces.

Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force, said the changes will involve everything from how the Air Force organizes its combat forces to the procurement of new weapons systems. The Air Force is striving to achieve a higher degree of integration capabilities.

New Challenges

“Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition” is not just about focusing on modernization and acquisition of new weapons, but about the Air Force as a whole. Is the structure of the U.S. Air Force today appropriate for the missions the Air Force must undertake in the future, or are the previous national security priorities still relevant in today’s environment? These questions may be largely answered when viewed in the context of current threats to the United States and strategic shifts in global geopolitics.

What has worked in the past two decades against terrorist organizations with limited military capabilities is unlikely to work against the CCP or Russia. The United States has spent a lot of money over the past two decades to conduct high-precision, high-efficiency, high-impact operations around the world, such as targeted killings and precision strikes, but on a very limited scale. In future conflicts, the United States would consider doing the same thing, but at a much larger pace and scale.

At the military operational level, the U.S. Air Force is considering a “composite coalition” concept that would enable air-to-air operations and aerial refueling operating under multiple command structures while conducting ground attacks. Realizing this idea would require bringing together different types of combat aircraft and their associated personnel and facilities to enhance combat capabilities.

This is not an entirely new concept since the Air Force attempted a mixed fleet model in 1991 during the Gulf War, but it did not work. While the concept is logical, it is not easy to implement. For one thing, deploying more than five different types of combat aircraft on a single base is very expensive. Each type of aircraft has its own infrastructure and logistical needs, and few of each type of aircraft can be kept in one place, which is simply not economically viable. Maintaining such complex fleets at a huge cost is a luxury, and the effectiveness of a limited number of complex fleets is questionable.

Air Force officials now believe that a mixed fleet model could be effective if the combat units were deployed without disrupting the flying fleet, but these different flying units need to train together regularly to ensure integration and readiness. In the long term, this format would be easier to implement and expand.

China’s Growing Threat

Mr. Kendall said last September that changes were necessary to specifically address China’s threats.

China has created two new military branches, the Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force, dramatically increasing its air and naval capabilities. The Rocket Force is designed to attack high-value American assets, aircraft carriers, forward airfields, and key command and control and logistics nodes. The Strategic Support Force is designed to achieve information dominance in the space and cyber domains, including attacking U.S. space-based capabilities.

“China was trying to field systems designed to defeat us, and we had to get to our next generation of capabilities. So we put a lot of effort into that, and we still are,” said Mr. Kendall.

The major restructuring of the U.S. Air Force suggests that China’s threat level and danger level may be higher from the perspective of the United States than is generally recognized. The United States leads the world with a defense budget of about $880 billion. China follows closely behind with a defense budget of about $300 billion. However, the CCP is not transparent about its defense spending, and the United States believes that the actual figure is probably closer to $700 billion.

In the Indo-Pacific region, the United States has more allies and partners, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan, and if we add in the annual defense expenditures of these countries, the United States defense budget for the Indo-Pacific region with its partners is close to $1 trillion.

In terms of military power, China can deploy more than 5,100 aircraft, 1,500 warships, and 26,000 artillery pieces. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (IPC), on the other hand, has 200 ships, including five carrier strike groups and about 1,100 aircraft. Taking into account Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan, the United States and its Western Pacific partners have a total of more than 18,600 aircraft, nearly 2,300 warships, and about 22,000 artillery pieces. That does not even take into account U.S. military forces that could be mobilized outside the Indo-Pacific region.

The United States can rely on these regional partnerships to deter Beijing’s aggression. Indeed, one of the U.S. strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years has been to develop and strengthen regional military cooperation. The U.S. maintains alliances with five countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand, which are binding agreements between the countries. In the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, these countries will work with the United States or facilitate its operations.

In conclusion, all the trends point in one direction, and that is, the Chinese regime needs to “behave.”  China’s so-called timeline to reunify with Taiwan by 2027 will probably become the end of the CCP if the regime is to push ahead with its militaristic agenda.

Michael Zhuang contributed to this report. 
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Stephen Xia, a former PLA engineer, specialized in aviation equipment and engineering technology management. After retiring from military service, he has been following the world's development of military equipment.
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