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Brown says China’s challenge must be met with speed, focus and commitment

WASHINGTON (AFNS) --

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. told an influential audience Aug. 6 at the National Press Club that the Air Force and the nation must respond with speed, focus and commitment to China’s emergence and other global security threats just as it did 20 years ago following the 9/11 attack.

“This challenge in … strategic competition may not be as stark or obvious as a 9/11-like event, but it can be just as catastrophic,” he warned in remarks during the press club’s Newsmaker event. “If we wait for another cataclysmic event to drive change for our Air Force and the joint force, it will be too late and we risk defeat.”

As he has noted before, Brown suggested there is no direct precedent on which to guide actions and decisions to formulate a response to China’s challenge.

“We are seeing a rate of change that challenges the rules based international order we’ve known since World War II,” Brown told a collection of reporters, editors and industry officials. “To put the gravity of our pacing challenge in perspective, at the height of the Cold War, the USSR’s GDP was 57 percent of the US’s. China’s economy will likely exceed the US’s in dollar terms as the largest economy in the world in the next 10 years.”

That reality means the United States and the Air Force must move now.

“I really believe, without change, we are at risk of losing," he said. "Risk of losing our competitive advantage in a highly-contested environment, risk of losing our credibility with our joint teammates and partners, risk of losing quality Airmen and their families if we don’t change as an Air Force. Most importantly, our ability to defend our national interests. To address the challenges that endanger our national security, the transition to the future of the Air Force, the future design, must start today.”

Part of the difficulty, Brown said, is that the U.S. Air Force has been unchallenged for so long that breaking free of that history is necessary to make the hard decisions needed to reshape the force.

“Air power has become as reliable as the breath you just took,” he said. “You don’t think about it. You count on it; you can’t live without it. The joint force needs air power. They can’t operate without it.

“… If we do not modernize to provide air power anytime, anywhere we are at risk of losing our most precious assets, our Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Guardians,” he said.

In a reprise of blunt assessments he has made frequently since becoming the Air Force’s highest-ranking officer in August 2020, Brown said the most pressing challenge is China and the United States must move faster and use new thinking to address that reality.

“China is modernizing its military, proliferating its systems and technology around the world, and reforming its economy — with purpose — to rival and surpass the U.S. as a global power.”

The response, he said, demands “hard choices” about the size and composition of the force, the number and type of aircraft and the necessary capabilities. Larger, he said, is not always better. The goal is to “right-size” the service for threats that are expected in 2030.

“When I say right-sized, it’s not just the size but the right mix of capabilities,” Brown said in response to a question.

“I could have a very large Air Force with the wrong set of capabilities, which would not be prepared to fight against China,” Brown said. “We can keep what we have today but that’s not going to match up against the threat we have in the future. I’d rather have a smaller, capable force than a larger, hollow force.”

To understand the best path forward, he said, the Air Force is conducting sophisticated analyses to determine more precisely the correct mix of people, planes, capabilities and how they are distributed and interact.

While that exercise is complex and ongoing, Brown said there remains one absolute: “We don’t want to wait until there’s a crisis to determine that we should have done something.”

In addition to the extended discussion about China and future threats, Brown also responded to an array of questions. They ranged from such topics as whether the military should impose a mandate for COVID-19 vaccinations, future operations in Afghanistan, the cost and future of the F-35 Lightning II, diversity, pilot training and even what actor Brown would like to play him if a movie of his life was ever made.

While Brown said the question of mandating vaccinations was a policy matter that is still being reviewed, he added, “Whether mandated or not, we want to encourage our Airmen to be vaccinated.”

Regarding the F-35, Brown again voiced unqualified support for the plane but acknowledged reducing the cost to fly and maintain the plane is a high priority.

“[The] F-35 is the cornerstone of our fighter fleet … It is the future of the Air Force,” he said. “Part of this is how we work with our industry partners to bring down sustainment costs. It’s on my radar; it’s on our industry partners’ radar.”