The US Air Force has withdrawn from Taiwan without a shot

F-15 Eagle fighter jet – Jack Guez/AFP

F-15 Eagle fighter jet – Jack Guez/AFP

The US Air Force is the largest and most powerful air force in the world: but maybe not for much longer. The service is struggling through two crises – one of money, another of belief in itself – that could erode its air advantage.

At best, the USAF could become a smaller but still the world’s premier military force. At worst, it could cede its lead to its most dangerous rival, the PLAAF Air Force. It has already created what looks awfully like a Western Pacific retreat, withdrawing squadrons in the face of the growing Chinese threat.

The USAF isn’t the only American military service to shrink while its Chinese adversary grows. After wasting billions of dollars on ships that don’t work, The US Navy is contracting even if Xi Jinping’s fleet grows.

The Air Force’s problem is similar. A quarter century ago, the USAF committed to spending much of its $250 billion annual budget on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter — an aircraft plagued by cost overruns and reliability issues.

The $400 billion project ate up the Air Force. When the F-35 was new, the idea was that the USAF should have nearly 1,800 of the stealthy fighters by that point. Instead, it’s less than 500.

Every dollar the USAF puts into the F-35 program is a dollar it cannot spend on affordable and reliable aircraft. For two decades since the F-35 first flew, the Air Force has purchased too few new aircraft. That forced the service to fly its older aircraft longer than the designers intended. Those old jets are finally wearing out, and there aren’t enough new ones to fully replace them.

The bill was brutal for the world’s largest air force, which today operates around 5,200 aircraft of all types. That’s 1,300 more aircraft than the Russian Air Force and 3,200 more than the PLAAF. The Russian Air Force is tied up in Russia’s war against Ukraine and is rapidly losing planes. But the Chinese air force has all its strength available for a possible attack Taiwanand adds hundreds of new aircraft every year.

Meanwhile, the USAF is withdrawing many aircraft from the western Pacific and withdrawing others from the western Pacific, progressively tipping the local air force balance toward China. Among the aircraft that the USAF plans to cut completely over the next few years are the A-10 Thunderbolt II (aka “Warthog”) fighter jet and the F-15C/D Eagle air superiority fighter, widely regarded as the best fighter the world in the pre-stealth era. About 260 Warthogs and 220 Eagles will go to the Bonyard. The USAF also plans to lose about 100 of its 220 high-performance F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bombers and as many as 30 of its 180 F-22 Raptor stealth superfighters, which are currently the last word in combat technology.

In all, more than 600 fighters could get the ax before 2030. That might not be a problem if the USAF bought enough new jets to replace them. However, the planned budgets only cover about 300 new F-35s and 100 upgraded Boeing-made F-15EX Eagle IIs. The F-22’s replacement, the mysterious “Next Generation Air Dominance” jet, won’t join the force until the 2030s.

The USAF combat fleet could shrink from about 1,900 aircraft to 1,700 aircraft over the next few years – a contraction in American air power on a scale not seen in decades. The steady growth of the Chinese air force underscores the risk of this reduction. While the USAF is shedding 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 aircraft, on par with the American F-35 or even the Raptor. China builds a dozen or more J-20s every year. It is believed that around 200 have been built to date, but these are from different batches with different levels of technology and the number actually in service at the front line is likely to be considerably fewer.

The retirement of old jets is not the only factor in the USAF’s withdrawal from the western Pacific. When the service announced last year that it would shut down both F-15C/D squadrons at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan — currently the main American combat center for a war over Taiwan — marked 40 years of constant flying and deteriorating airframe F-15 fatigue weren’t the only factors.

Kadena is just 350 miles northeast of Taiwan and about equidistant from the Chinese coast. The sprawling base is within reach of hundreds by Chinese non-nuclear ballistic missiles. A study by the Californian think tank RAND calculated that as few as 34 of these missiles could render Kadena unusable. A war game organized by the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in January resulted in the USAF losing 200 fighters in missile fire ahead of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

American long-range bombers – including the new B-21 Raider, whose maiden flight is slated for later this year – could be critical to a successful defense of Taiwan, CSIS noted, but short-range fighters were all but irrelevant in all of the scenarios the think tank ran. They didn’t even get a chance to take off when Chinese missiles rained down.

The Air Force’s solution to this dilemma is to remove the permanently deployed fighter squadrons from bases near China. Visiting squadrons may only stop briefly at Kadena before dispersing their jets to smaller, more remote airfields where USAF planners believe they are safer from Chinese barrages.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about this decision is that the Chinese Air Force considered the same problem – and came up with an entirely different solution. Chinese air bases are vulnerable to American and Taiwanese missiles, just as American air bases are vulnerable to Chinese missiles. But instead of withdrawing the hundreds of fighters it has set up for a war over Taiwan, the PLAAF has dug in.

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. In contrast, the USAF built only 15 shelters at Kadena.

during one possible war in the western Pacific, the Chinese Air Force clearly aims to stand and fight. In contrast, the USAF decided to withdraw even before the first shot was fired.

Assuming that fighter jets would no longer play a role in a war with China, the Air Force redoubled its own building failures enough new fighters to maintain his overall strength. The organization, which should instead be the US Air Force’s number one advocate, has championed it against air power.

There are practical steps the USAF could take to preserve its air power advantage, particularly over China. The quickest and cheapest way is to bring permanently stationed fighters back to Kadena — and spend a few billion dollars building a shelter for any planes to be stationed from the base.

In the medium term, the solutions will become more expensive. The USAF should hold onto every viable fighter it has for as long as possible. Maybe these 40 year old F-15C/D are ready to retire. But not everyone agrees that the oldest F-22s should face the axe. And the plan to cull half of the F-15E Strike Eagle workhorse fleet was met with astonishment.

Sure, these older planes cost more to upgrade and maintain than factory jets. But newly manufactured jets cost too much upfront for the Air Force to purchase in the numbers they need.

How is it reasonable to leave hundreds of fighters on the ground in order to afford a few expensive new ones when it means the United States is ceding the skies to China?

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