China, Russia taking ‘batting practice’ in air intercepts of aging US aircraft, general says
Aggressive maneuvers underscore diminishing U.S. advantage, Air Combat Command leader said.
Russian and Chinese forces are growing bolder in their aerial intercepts of U.S. aircraft, in part because they’re no longer intimidated by America’s aging air fleet, a top U.S. Air Force general says.
“When Russia or China looked at the U.S. Air Force 30 years ago before [and] after Desert Storm, it was just not something you wanted to get near. It was not remotely a capability you wanted to challenge at all,” Gen. Mark Kelly, Air Combat Command chief, told reporters Tuesday.
Not only is the U.S. fighter force getting smaller and older, China and Russia have also been heavily investing in their fleets, Kelly said at the Air & Space Forces Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber conference outside Washington, D.C.
“Yesterday” is when Air Combat Command needs the service’s planned new aircraft, such as the E-7 Wedgetail and the Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, fighter jet, Kelly said.
Adversaries want to test how far away they can detect U.S. fighter jets and “want a batting practice” by getting closer and closer to F-22s, F-35s, F-16s, and other aircraft, Kelly said.
“They’re like, ‘Hey, you know what? They aren't the capacity and the capability advantage they had 30 years ago. Maybe this is the time to go give them a run for the money’,” Kelly said.
Pentagon officials have spoken about increased Russian harassment this year, including describing how Russia’s fighter jets are making dangerous head-on passes of U.S. jets over Syria. In response, the U.S. has surged fighter jets to the Middle East. In mid-March, a Russian Sukhoi fighter jet collided with an American MQ-9 drone over the Black Sea. Russia’s defense minister awarded medals to the pilots, which Air Force officials have said encourages other Russian pilots to fly aggressively.
Kelly said that “no one should be surprised” that Russians ran into an MQ-9 because it doesn't cross the “red line” of taking a human life or putting one at risk.
But things are going to get trickier as the Air Force looks to send drones alongside manned aircraft on missions. Kelly said the service is still figuring out how exactly these collaborative combat aircraft would defend themselves if attacked. And once that decision is made, it will be crucial to ensure that everyone knows, he said.
“Before we move out on something like that, we better make sure everyone knows—including national command authority, including the Russians, or the Chinese—so there should be no surprises,” he said. “No surprises with the people we work for. No surprises with people we're competing with.”
The U.S. is far away from a place where it would “actually take life” over the loss of an inanimate object, like a CCA, he said.
“I think we would still stick with an eye for an eye. I think if somebody decides to smack a CCA out of the air, I think there would be a response [from] our National Command Authority,” Kelly said. “I would not see it as going up an escalation ladder just because it was a CCA.”