“China, China, and China.” U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said those are his top three priorities. While he acknowledges being glib, Kendall nevertheless mentioned China 29 times in his recent speech to the Air Force Association.
The pacing threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be deterred in large part by two major strategic efforts: accelerating the fielding of advanced capabilities, and deepening interoperability with allies and partners.
Progress has been made on both fronts, but in the words of Air Force Chief of Staff C.Q. Brown, we need to “accelerate change — or lose.”
China has become much more formidable in recent years, increasing its modernization efforts. On the conventional side, China has invested in precision weapons of steadily longer range, going from hundreds to thousands of miles, able to hit any American or allied asset anywhere in the world.
Today, China fields a growing arsenal of anti-satellite, anti-air and anti-ship missiles, as well as advanced cyber and electronic warfare capabilities — not to mention a growing hypersonic weapons program.
If China is to be deterred, then, we have to field the kinds of advanced capabilities in the Indo-Pacific that can actually blunt the threat. To quote Secretary Kendall again, “To achieve effective change we must keep our eye on the ball. For me that means focusing on the fielding of meaningful military capability into the hands of our operational users.”
Given the need for relevant, advanced capability in the hands of warfighters today, logic leads to a two-part conclusion: One, modernize our legacy forces, and two, accelerate the fielding of the next-generation capability available today.
While the growth of the B-21 bomber program and the continued progress on the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program are critical, we can’t wait for those programs to come to fruition. Realistically, it will be at least another five years before B-21s enter service; fielding the highly-classified NGAD is surely farther away than that.
The F-35 is the one advanced air capability in production right now that can be fielded on the front lines today — both by the United States and our allies and partners. But we still lack sufficient numbers of fifth-generation aircraft given today’s threat from the PRC.
In the competition with China, the United States has a key advantage: Like-minded allies and partners with the same concerns. The more that the United States can work in concert with allies and partners to deter the PRC, the better. Two developments are particularly noteworthy in this regard: The Quad and AUKUS.
The Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States, is increasing its activity through air and maritime exercises. The four countries’ leaders recently met in Washington, pledging to work together on a number of “soft power” initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.
AUKUS, comprising Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, grabbed headlines for the transfer of nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia. While that is an important capability, AUKUS also pledged to “significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities.”
These efforts to work more closely together include recent exercises among various AUKUS and Quad members. We have seen Australian F-35 pilots training in the United States, and U.S. and Japanese forces training in Australia. U.S. Marine Corps F-35B pilots have been deployed on a British aircraft carrier conducting cross-deck operations on U.S. carriers, and U.S. ships have been an important part of the British carrier’s battle group. Marine Corps aviators also have flown their F-35s off a Japanese ship in a recent testing phase.
This unprecedented level of interoperability with allies and partners — combined with common highly-advanced capabilities such as the F-35 — is the most effective, rapid way to create a powerful deterrent in commitment and capability, countering China’s hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
America and its allies must accelerate change. If not, where we still retain military overmatch with the PRC today, we will have parity at best tomorrow. Deterrence will be weakened, and the likelihood of conflict increased, along with the uncertainty of its outcome.
With China’s continued frenetic military buildup, accelerating change is a national security imperative. When it comes to next year’s defense budget, the White House, Pentagon and Congress should fully fund placing the most advanced capabilities in the hands of our warfighters and deepening interoperability with our allies and partners.
Scott Swift served 39 years in the U.S. Navy and retired as a four-star admiral. During his career, he served as commander of the Seventh Fleet, director Navy staff, and commander of the Pacific Fleet.