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Dwindling budgets have stalled US efforts to modernize its force and now the country is at risk of losing its air superiority, according to senior leaders speaking at an AFA Mitchell Institute forum on Capitol Hill. This chart shows the reach a next-generation Russian surface-to-air missile could have if placed on the National Mall, compared to a Vietnam-era SA-2 in the same hypothetical scenario. Screen shot from Mitchell video.

​The Air Force maintains air superiority today, but will it in the future?

“Over the next decade and a half the US is at risk of losing its ability to control the air domain in combat,” said retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute, at a forum on Capitol Hill Thursday.

Adversaries have been watching what the US has done in combat over the last 27 years and have invested heavily in technology that can counter our own capabilities, even as budget pressures have “forced delays in key investments” here, said Deptula.

Modern ground-based air defenses are better than ever with “unprecedented lethality,” according to a video shown at the event.

 


To demonstrate the point, the video placed a hypothetical Vietnam-era SA-2 surface-to-air missile on the national mall in downtown Washington, D.C, noting it could reach “nearly to Baltimore.” The Russian SA-10 and SA-20, which also is operated by Iran and China, on the other hand, extends that reach to the Philadelphia area. The Russian SA-21, which was sold to China, India, and most recently Vietnam, could target New York. Finally, under this scenario, Russia’s next-generation SAM, the S500, is “capable of engaging targets as far away as Charlotte, [N.C.] and Buffalo, [N.Y.],” according to the video.

A proliferation of advanced fighters around the globe also threatens US air superiority. “Today, there is basically no distinct fourth generation advantage we hold,” according to the video.

Lt. Gen. Chris Nowland, speaking at the same event, acknowledged the problem, saying the US has “become complacent.” He added, “We have to be hungry. We have to do things differently.”

Nowland said the Air Force can’t just invest in upgrades to old platforms. It has to “think new, new.” That means the service must stop thinking like a “champion” and more like a “contender.”

“Air and space superiority are not our birthright as Americans. We have to fight for it,” said Nowland.