RIA Novosti reported last week that Russia’s next-generation long-range bomber, the PAK DA, will start arriving in 2020, and not 2025, as initially planned. In addition, Russia’s three other types of strategic bombers, which currently can carry a total of 850 long-range cruise missiles, are all scheduled for modernization. Last year, Russia began test flights of its new stealth fighter, the PAK FA, which is being co-produced with India. All this is a reminder that America’s air supremacy, which has been largely uncontested at least since the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1991, will be coming under increasing pressure. China is also modernizing and expanding its fleet of fighters and ground-attack jets, and by most estimates has a decided advantage over Taiwan and possibly even Japan.
Just as concerning as Russia’s building of a new bomber is its eagerness to flaunt its old ones. Since 2007, Russia’s Air Force has increased the number of exercises it conducts near U.S. air space around Alaska, and according to Bill Gertz, American and Canadian Air Force fighters intercepted two Russian bombers that crossed into the U.S.’s 200-mile air defense identification zone around Alaska on July 4. Prior to this, Russian war games held in the same area in mid-June included 30 bombers, and may have been designed to test cruise missile attacks on U.S. missile defense facilities.
As with freedom of the sea, America has long taken air supremacy for granted. The idea of Russian bombers flying over the Pole to attack U.S. bases may seem like a flashback to Dr. Strangelove, but it remains very much a part of Russian security planning. Similarly, Chinese jets and bombers may also soon be able to threaten U.S. bases in the Pacific, such as on Okinawa or Guam. Chinese missiles already hold those installations at risk, but adding in a bomber component would further stretch America’s thin air defenses in the region.
Although Washington has not yet fully paid attention to these potential threats, it has moved swiftly ahead with cutting the size of the U.S. Air Force. While the Pentagon begins the slow process of building America’s own next generation bomber, the Air Force continues to wait for the F-35 to replace our 30-year-old F-15s and F-16s. Had the F-22 been built in numbers the Air Force needed (around 340), the Russian and Chinese might not seem as much of a problem for the next 20 years. As it is, with only 186 F-22s — which continue to have oxygen-system problems — airpower strategists can only watch Russian and Chinese developments with a sense of concern, highlighted by the knowledge that our aging jets and bombers will be expected to penetrate increasingly lethal air-defense systems in places like Iran, as well as protect against enemy forces in the air far from home or over American territory.