The US Air Force has retreated from Taiwan without a shot fired
40 | David Axe | Wed, May 3, 2023 at 4:27 AM PDT
F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft - Jack Guez/AFPThe US Air Force is the biggest and most powerful air force in the world: but maybe not for long. The service is struggling through twin crises – one of money, another of belief in itself – that could narrow its aerial advantage.
At best, the USAF might emerge a smaller but still world-leading force. At worst, it might cede its lead to its most dangerous rival, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). It has already made something that looks awfully like a retreat from the Western Pacific, withdrawing squadrons in the face of the growing Chinese menace.
The USAF isn’t the only American armed service that’s shrinking while its Chinese adversary is growing. After wasting billions of dollars on ships that don’t work, the US Navy is contracting even as Xi Jinping’s fleet is expanding.
The Air Force’s problem is similar. A quarter-century ago, the USAF committed to spending much of its $250 billion annual budget on the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter – a plane which has been beset by cost overruns and reliability problems.
The $400-billion project has eaten the Air Force. The idea, when the F-35 was new, was for the USAF to have nearly 1,800 of the stealthy fighters by this point. Instead, it has fewer than 500.
Every dollar the USAF feeds the F-35 program is a dollar it can’t spend on planes that are affordable and reliable. For two decades, since the F-35 first flew, the Air Force has bought too few new planes. That forced the service to fly its older planes for longer than their designers intended. Those old jets are finally wearing out, and there aren’t enough new ones to fully replace them.
The math has been brutal for the world’s biggest air force, which today operates around 5,200 aircraft of all types. That’s 1,300 more aircraft than the Russian air force has, and 3,200 more than the PLAAF has. The Russian air force is tied up, and losing planes fast, in Russia’s war on Ukraine. But the Chinese air force has all its strength available for a possible attack on Taiwan, and is adding hundreds of new planes every year
The Contraction of American Air Power
Meanwhile, the USAF is retiring many aircraft and pulling others out of the Western Pacific, increasingly letting the local airpower balance tip towards China. The aircraft the USAF plans to cut completely in just the next few years include the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack jet (aka the “Warthog”) and the F-15C/D Eagle air-superiority fighter, generally seen as the best fighter in the world in the pre-Stealth era. Some 260 Warthogs and 220 Eagles will go to the boneyard. The USAF also plans to lose roughly 100 of its 220 powerful F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bombers, and even 30 of its 180 F-22 Raptor stealth superfighters, currently the last word in fighter technology.
In all, more than 600 fighters could get the axe before 2030. That might not be a problem if the USAF were buying enough new jets to replace them. But projected budgets cover just 300 or so new F-35s and 100 upgraded Boeing-made F-15EX Eagle IIs. The F-22’s replacement, the secretive “Next Generation Air Dominance” jet, won’t join the force until the 2030s.
The Chinese Air Force's Steady Growth
The USAF fighter fleet could shrink from around 1,900 planes to 1,700 planes in the next few years – a contraction of American air power on a scale that hasn’t occurred in decades. The Chinese air force’s steady growth underscores the risk in this reduction. While the USAF sheds its oldest F-22 Raptors, the PLAAF is acquiring its own J-20 stealth fighter. The J-20 is said to be a true fifth-generation plane the equal of America’s F-35 or even the Raptor. China is building a dozen or more J-20s every year. Some 200 are thought to have been built so far, but these are of differing batches with varying levels of technology and the number actually in front-line service is probably considerably smaller.
Shuttering Fighter Squadrons at Kadena Airbase
The retirement of old jets isn’t the only factor in the USAF’s retreat from the Western Pacific. When the service announced, last year, that it would shutter both F-15C/D squadrons at Kadena airbase in Japan – currently the main American fighter hub for a war over Taiwan – the F-15s’ 40 years of constant flying and worsening airframe fatigue weren’t the only factors.
Kadena lies just 350 miles northeast of Taiwan, and roughly the same distance from the Chinese coast. The sprawling base is within range of hundreds of Chinese non-nuclear ballistic missiles. A study by the California think-tank RAND calculated that just 34 of those missiles could render Kadena unusable. A January war game organized by the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) resulted in the USAF losing 200 fighters in the missile barrage preceding a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
The Divergent Solutions of US and Chinese Air Bases
American long-range bombers – including the new B-21 Raider, scheduled for its first flight later this year –could be critical to a successful defense of Taiwan, CSIS found, but short-range fighters were all but irrelevant in all of the scenarios the think-tank gamed out. They never even got a chance to take off as Chinese missiles rained down.
The Air Force’s solution to this dilemma is to remove the permanently-based fighter squadrons from bases near China. Visiting squadrons might stop over at Kadena only briefly before spreading out their jets to smaller outlying airfields, where USAF planners assume they’d be safer from Chinese barrages.
What’s perhaps most galling about this decision is that the Chinese air force weighed the same problem – and came up with a totally different solution. Chinese air bases are vulnerable to American and Taiwanese missiles, just as American airbases are vulnerable to Chinese missiles. But instead of pulling out the hundreds of fighters it has positioned for a war over Taiwan, the PLAAF dug in.
A Questionable Retreat Strategy
In recent years, the Chinese have built hundreds of reinforced, bunker-like hangars at the airfields closest to Taiwan. These hardened aircraft shelters help protect aircraft from missile attacks. By contrast, the USAF has built just 15 hardened shelters at Kadena.
During a possible war in the Western Pacific, the Chinese air force clearly aims to stand and fight. By contrast, the USAF decided to retreat before the first shot was even fired.
Doubling Down on Failure: The Lack of New Fighters
In assuming that fighters no longer matter in a war with China, the Air Force is doubling down on its own failure to build enough new fighters to maintain its overall strength. The organization that should be the biggest advocate for US air power instead has been making the case against air power.
There are practical steps the USAF could take to preserve its air-power advantage, especially against China. The quickest and cheapest is to return permanently-based fighters to Kadena – and spend a few billion dollars building a protective shelter for each plane it plans to stage from the base.
Over the medium term, the solutions get pricier. The USAF should hang on to every viable fighter it has for as long as it can. Maybe those 40-year-old F-15C/Ds are ready to retire. But not everyone agrees that the oldest F-22s should face the axe. And the plan to cull half the workhorse F-15E Strike Eagle fleet has been met with amazement.
Sure, these older planes cost more to upgrade and maintain than factory-fresh jets do. But newly-made jets cost too much up front for the Air Force to buy them in the numbers it needs.
How is grounding hundreds of fighters in order to afford a few pricey new ones justifiable if it means the United States surrendering the sky to China?