Beijing: For a quarter century, the US and its allies owned the skies, fighting wars secure in the knowledge that no opponent could compete in the air. As tensions with Russia and China surge, that’s no longer the case.
Rapid technological progress in China’s aerospace industry, particularly air-to-air missile systems fired from an aircraft, is changing the game for Western air forces and the global arms trade. It’s also altering the picture for China’s neighbors such as India.
Russia took the lead in modernizing its air force, and has been more willing to use it. In the longer term, however, China’s roughly $13 trillion economy and growing wealth mean it is likely to pose the greater strategic challenge for the US and its allies. In 2017, Chinese defense spending rose by 5.6 percent in constant US dollar terms, while Russia’s fell by 20 percent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China spent $228 billion last year and Russia $66.3 billion, SIPRI said.
“We had an environment where we could do whatever we wanted in the air, and what the Chinese have done is to say you no longer can,” said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. As a result, US commanders now have to take into account potential loss rates for pilots and aircraft that they haven’t had to face since the 1980s.
The US air force remains the strongest by far. Yet the Chinese advances come at a sensitive time, as the US appetite to continue its role as global policeman fades. Meanwhile President Xi Jinping has set ambitious goals to dominate advanced industries like robotics and artificial intelligence and to assert Chinese interests in the disputed South China Sea and beyond.
The catch-up by Russia and China has been a long time coming, triggered in each case by shock at the ease with which the US air force demolished opponents in the 1990s, according to Vasily Kashin, a specialist in military aviation at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics at the National Research University.
For China, that moment came during the first Gulf War, when an American air campaign swiftly crushed the Iraqi military, at the time better equipped than China’s. For Russia, he said, the wake-up came in 1999, when a US-led bombing campaign forced Serbia to withdraw troops and tanks from its own province, Kosovo.
Taiwan (which China considers a province) has also been a factor for Beijing. The US called in two aircraft carrier battle groups to support the island during a dust-up with China in 1996 and has provided $18 billion in arms since 2008.
Some of China’s biggest strides are coming in air-to-air missiles, the weapons that for one or two million dollars can destroy a $150 million aircraft. That’s a cost efficient way of trying to level the playing field with the US. China’s defense budget is well over three times as big as Russia’s or India’s, but still much lower than the $610 billion the US spends, according to SIPRI.
In March, the US Air Force awarded a half-billion-dollar contract to supply close allies with Raytheon Inc.’s latest long range air-to-air missile, capable of hitting enemy planes from 100 miles (160 kilometers) away. The Meteor, a new European equivalent, may be even more deadly. But China’s latest offering, the PL-15, has a greater range than either.