In 1991, as part of the Desert Storm, the US and its allies flew more than 116,000 combat air sorties and dropped 88,500 tons of bombs over six weeks before the ground campaign.
The air missions were so successful that the ground campaign was over in 100 hours. However, as the USAF completes 76 years of existence today, its declining prowess suggests it will struggle to conduct Operation Desert Storm against peer adversaries like China.
Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf saw an expansive use of stealth aircraft and precision-guided munitions. The air power was used so effectively that the ground campaign drove the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in just four days.
As the USAF celebrates its 76th anniversary, experts note that its ploy to lower qualification standards has been unable to attract enough recruits to fill its ranks. A National Interest report notes that the size and serviceability of its combat aircraft are at all-time lows. Besides the shortage of pilots, a shortened training schedule has adversely impacted the pilots’ readiness.
“In sum, the Air Force today would struggle to execute another Desert Storm, much less take on a peer adversary like China,” concluded the report titled “The US Air Force is in serious Decline.”
Russia has been struggling and failing miserably to maintain air supremacy against Ukraine, considered to be a lesser power than Moscow. If it ever goes up against China, the next rising power in the global order, the USAF has its task cut out.
The USAF had 4,468 fighters and 331 bomber aircraft in its inventory. Roughly eight out of ten were mission-capable. The force presently has just 1,932 fighter and 140 bomber aircraft.
“On any given day, only six of every ten are fit to fly combat missions. In a war with China, the Air Force could generate just 32 percent of the fighter and bomber capacity it could in 1987,” said John Venable, a graduate of the US Air Force Fighter Weapons Instructor Course and a Senior Research Fellow for Defense Policy in the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation.
“Unfortunately, unit and individual pilot readiness levels have also fallen to unprecedented levels,” Venable adds.
The critical article underscores that the USAF became a separate service arm 76 years ago when the US Army saw maintaining an operationally ready air arm as complex. Following a 1923 study known as the Lassiter Report, the dangers of callousness in maintaining air supremacy came to the fore.
“History appears to be repeating—only now it is not the Army, but the service charged with dominating the skies that seems to have lost interest in air supremacy,” Venable contends.
He says that at the peak of the Cold War, the average fighter pilot flew more than 160 sorties/200 hours a year. In 2022, Air Force fighter pilots averaged just seventy-four sorties or 129 hours of flying a year.
They also averaged less than two of the three mission simulator sorties they are supposedly required to receive monthly. “By the service’s definition, there isn’t a squadron in the Air Force that could be considered mission-ready,” Venable adds.
In 2024, the flight hours budget for USAF pilots has been the lowest since the formation of the service. Coupled with this, the USAF has fallen short of its recruitment goals in the Active-Duty category by 11 percent in 2023.
Its Air Reserve category has fallen short by 30 percent. This shortfall in recruitment has come despite the force relaxing its policies related to drug use, body composition, age limitations, and other recruitment standards.
From its founding to the end of the Cold War, the USAF prioritized building a cadre of exceptional aviators. While selection to the flight school was performance-based, the evaluation of excellence continued throughout the training and career of the aviator.
“Washout rates for flight schools exceeded 20 percent in the 1980s, and the bar was high for every successive school beyond. But the drive for efficiencies in the 1990s and the initiative to improve racial diversity in the 2020s has made a mockery of the screening process.
In 2021, just 0.27 percent of flight school candidates were eliminated because of performance. Screening beyond flight school is effectively non-existent, even for promotions,” notes Venable.
Underlining the laxity with promotion, he adds that every Air Force captain without legal or ethical issues has been promoted to Major since 2017, which “means even poor performers graduate and advance.”
“Accessions, training, and promotion standards are at all-time lows, which places the big picture—the service’s ability to execute its wartime mission—into jeopardy,” Venable sums up.
Where Does USAF Stand Against PLA-Air Force?
In comparison, the Chinese Air Force is cited in the Department of Defense as the third largest in the world and the largest in the Pacific region. The Pentagon’s China report also states that the country operates roughly 2,250 combat aircraft, and Globalfirepower.com’s 2021 assessment said the country has over 1,200 fighter aircraft.
The lack of number parity of platforms can cause many to dismiss the threat the expanding PLA-Air Force poses. The experts, however, point out that the exponentially growing Chinese Navy and a string of offshore military bases will offset the small number of 5th-generation stealth aircraft in the inventory of the Chinese Air Force.
The air threat posed by China is compounded by China’s nuclear triad, whose capability is augmented by the arrival of the country’s first H-6N nuclear capable air-to-air refuelable bomber.
Also, China is fast-tracking stealthy attack drones such as the GJ-11 and its new H-20 stealth bomber. The Chinese FC-31 carrier launched, which is touted to have similar capabilities as China’s first F-35C fighter jets, will boost its power.
The US-China tanker deficit is glaring, as China is reported to operate only “3” tankers, compared to the USAF’s tanker fleet of 625 aircraft, according to Globalfirepower.com. However, China is now converting some of its now-operational Y-20 cargo planes into tankers, likely as part of an effort to address its deficit.
Pentagon’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states: “The PLAAF is developing the Y-20U, a new tanker variant of its large Y-20 heavy-lift transport, which will enable the PLAAF to expand its tanker fleet and improve its power significantly.” If China manages to double the range of its fighter jets and bombers like the H-20, it will open up new attack options for the PLAAF.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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