NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — As China continues to enhance its military’s technology and equipment, the U.S. Air Forces Pacific Command needs to be able to respond – even if it’s not against China, the commander of PacAF said Wednesday.
“We may not necessarily fight China, we will fight their stuff,” Gen. Herbert Carlisle said during a presentation at the Air Force Association’s annual conference here.
Carlisle, who took over the Pacific theater command just over a year ago, said enemies and potential enemies have seen what American airpower can do “and their objective in many cases is to keep us as far as away as they possibly can.”
Carlisle was not alone in raising the specter of an emerging and growing China as a key challenge to the U.S.
On Tuesday, Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, told reporters that China is forging ahead with fifth generation fighters that will challenge American airpower in the region in about five years unless the U.S. is able to field the F-35 Lightning II as scheduled.
The Air Force is slated to buy 1,763 F-35s — barring budget cuts that reduce the number. The plane was already behind schedule before the economy crashed in 2008 and began taking a toll on the Defense Department.
“If we keep slowing the ramp, we’ll never get to 1,763 because I’ll be ‘bone yarding’ the first ones before I get the last ones. It’s critical we get to that number,” Hostage said.
PacAF spelled out a year ago its need for the F-35, emphasizing in its annual strategic plan that it remained a priority for the theater.
“New threats and investment needs are not theoretical possibilities for the future; they are here now,” the plan stated.
Carlisle on Wednesday called China “the pacing threat” because it’s the most capable in the region. He also noted that Russia is developing more sophisticated capabilities and exporting them to other countries.
“These advance capabilities will be ubiquitous throughout the world just because they go to the highest bidder,” he said.
They’re using electronic attack systems able to operate in a spectrum that can wreak havoc on GPS and radar systems, Carlisle said. Potential adversaries wanting to keep the U.S. at a distance look to do that with advanced surface-to-air missiles land and anti-ship missiles.
Integrated air and missile defense will be one of the biggest challenges, he said, requiring continued capability in strike ops, active defense – including Patriot missiles, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles – and passive defense capabilities such as flexible basing of launch and fuel assets, concealment and camouflage, and agile command and control capability.
The military’s emphasis on the Pacific region – dubbed the Pacific Pivot – is a response to the U.S. determination that national security strategy requires a more robust presence.
“This administration has said that by necessity we will refocus and rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region just because of [its] importance,” he said. “Thirty-six countries [and] 55 percent of gross domestic product of the world is in this region, and clearly the health and security and stability of the Asian-Pacific region is key to not only our country, but pretty much every country in the world.”