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China on Friday announced a provocative new air defense zone in the East China Sea that covers Japanese islands. Over the past three years, China and Japan have been inching toward armed conflict over the Senkaku Islands, which Japan has claimed as its territory since 1895 and China has claimed since 1970.
With Beijing now stating that all non-commercial flights within its zone must identify themselves and disclose their flight plans, the concept of freedom of aerial navigation is at risk. This could draw America into an escalating conflict in the skies. Whether the Obama administration is ready for that crisis remains a question, however.
Americans are used to hearing about China’s development of seapower and the growing reach of the Chinese navy. Yet without command of the air, neither ground nor naval forces are safe. So Beijing is starting to invest heavily in its air force, too.
In recent weeks, the Chinese have reportedly agreed to purchase Russian Su-35 fighters, among the most advanced in the world. Beijing also has unveiled an upgraded strategic bomber that will carry a new long-range land attack cruise missile. In September, Chinese air forces flew remotely piloted surveillance drones over the Senkakus.
A new Congressional report reveals that China has also built an armed drone similar to the U.S. Air Force’s Reaper. All of that pales in comparison to the attention paid to Beijing’s development of next-generation stealth fighters, designed to match the small number of U.S. Air Force F-22s and F-35, which is still being developed.
Given China’s numerous island disputes with its neighbors in both the East and South China Seas, the rapid emergence of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is a source of concern. China boasts over 2,500 combat aircraft of varying quality, dwarfing any other Asian power. Its missiles can target all countries in Asia, and creating an air umbrella to protect PLA forces operating in East Asian seas could dramatically change perceptions of the balance of power in the Pacific. Combined with China’s new aircraft carrier, the power projection capabilities of China’s air forces could soon far outstrip any nation in the region.
In response, Asian countries are trying to build up their air forces, a trend that will be accelerated by the announcement of China’s air defense zone. Japan has signed on to buy the F-35, a program of which Australia is an integral part. Last week, South Korea announced that it will buy the single-engine stealth attack fighter. Japan has agreed to station U.S. Air Force Global Hawks on its territory, and many expect it will soon purchase its own drones.
But the lingering question is precisely what role the U.S. will be able to play in the region. Budget cuts and sequestration are playing havoc with planning. Today, the man responsible for maintaining America’s air supremacy in Asia is U.S. Air Force General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle. An F-15 pilot, the four-star general controls U.S. Air Force planes and personnel throughout the Pacific, and acts as the overall airpower warfighter for U.S. Pacific Command, headquartered in Honolulu, with over 45,000 airmen and nearly 400 airplanes under his direct command.
Gen. Carlisle says he has had to cancel training exercises and delay joint drills due to budget constraints. A shortage of funds is forcing him to pick and choose the types of activities he can undertake and make a hierarchy of the partner countries with which he does them.
“We have the capacity,” he says, “but not enough money” to maintain actions at a level America’s partners have come to expect. While he is receiving the newest Air Force systems, including the F-22, and expects to be first in line for the F-35 and the future Long-Range Strike Bomber, the numbers may not be enough to allow him to keep his continuous presence around the region, let alone offset China’s larger forces.
Perhaps Gen. Carlisle’s biggest concern is the reduction in flying hours. Regular training keeps U.S. pilots the best in the world. In 2014, however, the Air Force plans on cutting flying hours by 19%. With sequestration and budget cuts, American combat air forces currently are getting only between five and eight hours of flying per month. “That’s unacceptable,” Gen. Carlisle says, noting that the U.S. is approaching the training level of Soviet forces in the Cold War, which hampered their flying ability.
America’s promises to its allies and partners are not believable without airpower to back them up. China is no match for the United States today, but it has decided to try to force the issue of its control of the skies, just as it is doing in the region’s waters. Not only must Japan decide how to respond, but America may well be drawn into an aerial crisis.
A failure to respond, combined with the possibility of a hollow Air Force in coming years, would embolden China’s belief in its advantage over weaker nations. Summing up the trends even before China’s most recent move, Gen. Carlisle simply said, “I’m worried today.”
Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.
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