Editor’s Note: Here’s another one for the Color-Us-Shocked! files: The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) will have a larger and more advanced force than our own Air Force in fifteen years. We have watched the fighter gap grow as time passes, as most of our “Legacy” aircraft are either nearing or at the end of their service life. While new sensors, pods, weapons, coatings, etcetera are all well and good, at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do with a forty-year-old airplane who’s tired, cranky, and prone to breaking due to its advanced age.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) will be able to match or exceed the United States Air Force in the number of fielded combat aircraft by 2030. Moreover, while American forces will still maintain an edge, the technological gap between the two great powers will have closed significantly between now and then.
Right now, the PLAAF is slightly larger in terms of personnel, however the U.S. Air Force has a “couple thousand more aircraft,” Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief-of-staff, told the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense on March 2.
“At the rate they’re building, the models they’re fielding, by 2030 they will have fielded—they will have made up that 2,000 aircraft gap and they will be at least as big—if not bigger—than our air forces.”
But it’s not just sheer numbers, the PLAAF is rapidly fielding newer and much more capable aircraft. Some of those are completely new warplanes like the stealthy Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31, while at least three more are upgraded versions of existing fighters like the J-11D and J-16 among others. Moreover, China continues to import advanced Russian-made fighters including the fearsome Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E.
“We are not keeping up with that kind of technology development,” Welsh said. “We are still in a position of—we will have the best technology in the battlespace especially if we can continue with our current big three modernization programs.”
Those modernization programs are the Boeing KC-46 tanker, Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Northrop-Grumman B-21 Long Range Strike-Bomber. However, even then America’s technological edge will not be the vast gulf the nation has grown accustomed to since the end of the Cold War.
“[China] will have a lot of technology that’s better than the stuff we’ve had before,” Welsh said. “And the Russians are doing the same thing.”
Dave Majumdar’s article at National Interest can be viewed in its entirety here.
(Featured photo courtesy of Piotr Butowski)