U.S. needs 6th generation fighter

“The Air Force must field its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter soon if it wants to compete with China,” Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, the senior officer over America’s fighter fleets says. A prototype has already flown (see story here). But he wonders whether “our nation will have the … focus to field this capability” before China “uses it against us.” (Read story here.)

The NGAD is a “6th generation” fighter (the F-35 is “5th generation”), and at present, no nation is flying one. China, among other countries, is working on it, and aims to have theirs flying by 2025-2030. The U.S. Air Force heretofore has thought in terms of fielding NGAD by 2030-2035. That might be too late.

Descriptions of what “6th generation” entails are a bit squishy, because the plane’s roles aren’t precisely defined, and feasibility of some of the technology isn’t settled. Wikipedia says “several distinct characteristics … have evolved” pointing to an aircraft tied into satellites, ground sensors, and data networks; having unmanned remote-control capabilities; and serving as a platform for advanced weapons systems currently under development (such as directed-energy weapons). (Read Wikipedia article here.

There’s a general perception that Democrats are inclined to cut defense spending in favor of domestic programs. However, Biden says he supports Pentagon budget growth of 2%-3% a year, while he pursues ambitious domestic spending proposals. He’s not letting up on the tougher U.S. posture toward China (see story here) that began with Obama’s “Asia pivot,” and continued under Trump, in recognition of the reality that China, not Russia, is now the U.S.’s principal foreign adversary.

Since World War 2, the U.S. has presided over a “rules based” international order. China isn’t interested in competing with the U.S. for leadership of that order. It wants to replace it with an “alternative order” run by Beijing and based on “might makes right.” You might see a rough analogy there to Germany’s quest for domination by military force in the last century. Like the Third Reich, the PRC is ruled by a ruthless anti-democratic dictatorship with territorial ambitions, no regard for human rights, and capable of genocide.

The U.S. and its allies can’t afford not to confront China with superior military capabilities. An early casualty of failing to do so would be Taiwan’s freedom. China asserts sovereignty over Taiwan and intends to take the island by force. The U.S. has long depended on having superior technology to win wars, and technology has never been more critical in the military sphere than now. This is no time to surrender America’s technological edge.

Military strength isn’t just for winning wars; it also works to prevent wars by deterring aggressive regimes from seeking military solutions to disputes, by discouraging them from starting fights they won’t win. And if the U.S. must engage China in battle, a strong conventional warfighting capability could help keep the conflict from going nuclear with unpredictable consequences.

The best war is the one that isn’t fought. China’s top general recently was quoted as saying his country views war with the U.S. as “inevitable.” Capabilities like NGAD are costly, but building them helps persuade China’s leadership to reconsider that line of thinking, or if that fails, may be essential to win. Surrendering the Far East to Chinese military rule shouldn’t even be considered as a policy option, but if the U.S. can’t fight China’s military and win, that’s where things will end up.

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