AFA 2023 — American jets flying missions in international airspace near China are intercepted as many as 10 times a day, according to the commander of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).
While Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach said the “majority” of those intercepts aren’t necessarily a concern, a number involve Chinese pilots performing unsafe maneuvers, risking injury to both countries’ pilots and raising the chances of an international incident. And when confronted about these “completely unprofessional and totally unsafe” run-ins, he said, the response from the People’s Liberation Army is less than conciliatory.
“What’s disturbing is… their typical response is, ‘This is your fault, because this wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t here,’” he said in cases where American officials have been able to confront their Chinese counterparts on unsafe intercepts. “What they’re saying is, they don’t want us to exercise the same right that they have to be in international airspace, which is agreed upon by just about everyone on the planet that international airspace is just that.”
Wilsbach, speaking with reporters at the Air & Space Forces Association’s Air, Space & Cyber conference in National Harbor, Md., emphasized Chinese forces have the right to conduct intercepts just as American pilots do in US air identification zones, but he stressed that their behavior needs to improve to avoid catastrophe.
“Do it safely, do it professionally and everybody will be okay. We won’t have a miscalculation. We won’t have a disaster,” he said.
Speaking at a separate media briefing on Tuesday, Gen. Mark Kelly, head of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, explained that both China and Russia have become more emboldened in their alleged harassment of US flights because the US Air Force has shrunk and gotten older.
“They want a batting practice,” Kelly said. “They kind of want to know, ‘Hey, how far can I detect a fill-in-the-blank platform — F-22, F-35, F-15E, F-16 — and once I get close to it, you know, how far can they lock on to me?’
“The larger piece… is they’re like, ‘Hey, you know what? They aren’t the capacity, the capability advantage they had 30 years ago, maybe this is the time we go, you know, give them a run for their money,” he added.
Separately, Wilsbach warned that a key initiative for the Air Force to make headway in the Indo-Pacific could be at risk under a continuing resolution (CR).
With the Air Force seeking about $1.2 billion for Agile Combat Employment (ACE) initiatives in the fiscal 2024 budget — where the service seeks to make operations more dispersed with a hub-and-spoke model to prevent Chinese attacks on bases from crippling regional operations — Wilsbach said getting a new budget is critical for realizing the service’s ACE concept.
“The biggest things that I am interested in from the standpoint of the ‘24 budget… [is] the pre-positioning [of equipment] for ACE, some of the money to execute ACE construction. There’s additionally new munitions that I’m very interested in that we’re purchasing in the ‘24 budget if approved. And then modernization” efforts, he said.
With US officials very vocal about plans to shift strategy in the Indo-Pacific, Wilsbach said he hadn’t seen evidence yet of Chinese officials changing their own strategy in response, though he cautioned that it’s probably happening without his knowledge.
“I’m not sure that I am seeing any adaptation,” he said. “But what I presume that they’re doing is, they’re trying to figure out, you know, where are we going to be? How can they stop us from being agile,” he said. While he hasn’t seen direct evidence yet of larger changes in strategy in response to US initiatives, “if I was them, that’s what I would be working on. So I’m presuming that they are.”