LONDON • For a quarter century, the United States and its allies owned the skies, fighting wars secure in the knowledge that no opponent could compete in the air. As tensions with Russia and China surge, that is no longer the case.
Rapid technological progress in China's aerospace industry, particularly in air-to-air missile systems fired from an aircraft, is changing the game for Western air forces and the global arms trade.
Russia took the lead in modernising its air force, and has been more willing to use it. But in the longer term, China's roughly US$13 trillion (S$17 trillion) economy and growing wealth mean it is likely to pose the greater strategic challenge for the US and its allies.
Last year, Chinese defence spending rose by 5.6 per cent in constant US dollar terms, while Russia's fell by 20 per cent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China spent US$228 billion and Russia spent US$66.3 billion, the institute said.
"We had an environment where we could do whatever we wanted in the air, and what the Chinese have done is to say you no longer can," said senior fellow for military aerospace Douglas Barrie at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. As a result, US commanders now have to take into account potential loss rates for pilots and aircraft that they have not had to face since the 1980s.
The US Air Force remains the strongest by far. Yet the Chinese advances come at a sensitive time, as the US appetite to continue its role as global policeman fades.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping has set ambitious goals to dominate advanced industries such as robotics and artificial intelligence and to assert Chinese interests in the disputed South China Sea and beyond.
The catch-up by Russia and China has been a long time coming, triggered by shock at the ease with which the US Air Force demolished opponents in the 1990s, according to Dr Vasily Kashin, a specialist in military aviation at Moscow's Higher School of Economics at the National Research University.
For China, that moment came during the first Gulf War, when an American air campaign swiftly crushed the Iraqi military, at the time better equipped than China's. For Russia, he said, the wake-up call came in 1999, when a US-led bombing campaign forced Serbia to withdraw troops and tanks from its own province, Kosovo.
"In the United States, we've been on holiday for 25 years and maybe a little bit more," said Dr Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defence for research and engineering.
"We failed to continue to fund the practices that had got us where we were, which was at the very top of the technological heap."