The commander of U.S. air forces in Europe has said that the Russian Air Force's buildup and modernization in recent years has been both "alarming" and effective at achieving near parity with the West.
"The alarming thing," General Frank Gorenc said on September 14, is that the Russians are catching up. "They've closed the gap."
Speaking at an annual Air Force Association conference, Gorenc said he was concerned about Russia's moves to increase the quantity and quality of its aircraft and field unmanned aircraft.
"The advantage that we had from the air, I can honestly say, is shrinking," he said.
After embarrassing fumbles during the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the Russians embarked on "a very large modernization" to improve both training and equipment, Gorenc said. "They learned a lot."
Gorenc said he wasn’t solely or even primarily worried about the pilots flying Russian fighter jets. It's ground-based radars and missiles that have him most concerned.
Gorenc called "alarming" both Russia's investments in modernizing its air force and in building formidable surface-to-air missile defenses. Two particularly worrisome defenses have been set up around the Crimea region of Ukraine, which Russia annexed in 2014, and Kaliningrad, a Russia exclave between Poland and Lithuania.
"Some of the array that's in Kaliningrad extends into Poland today. That's a fact," he said. In other words, launchers on Russian soil can hit targets in NATO airspace. In fact, Gorenc has said that one-third of Polish airspace is in the Russians' range.
Russia's formidable air-defense system is a problem because it blunts the leading edge of the U.S. war machine, which has been air power. It’s not just an air-force issue. Aircraft carriers have been the flagships of the fleet since 1941, while the army hasn't lost a soldier to enemy air strikes since 1953.
Since at least 1991, the United States has fought all its conflicts with absolute control of the air, unimpeded in its ability to reconnoiter the battlefield, bomb enemies, and rescue friendly ground troops.
"Anyone who has watched the United States operate understands...that it's to their advantage to deny access into areas, particularly from the air," Gorenc said. "With air superiority, everything is possible; without it, nothing is possible."
U.S. officials often warn of strides by China in developing defenses against U.S. stealth fighters and bombers and more capable surface-to-air missiles, but Gorenc said Russia was making similar moves.
"This is not just a Pacific problem; it is as significant in Europe as it is anywhere else on the planet," he said. "I don't think it's controversial to say they've closed the gap in capability."
Gorenc said the U.S. Air Force needed to develop new training, tactics, and procedures to respond to the increased capabilities of its potential adversaries, and maintain the long-standing military edge it has enjoyed for decades while protecting U.S. and allied forces on the ground.
"We just need to be cognizant of it," he said. "We just need to continue to work really hard to make sure that we can provide that."
One tactic he said the air force was using to contend with better Russian air-defense capabilities is to expand the number of air bases used by NATO warplanes, and move them around more frequently, making it more difficult for Russians to anticipate and target where they are operating.
The goal of this initiative, known as Rapid-X, is "to generate combat power just at the right time, just in the right place," he said.
To meet the new threat, Gorenc said, "it's pretty clear we're going to have go back and start exercising some of the same stuff we used to do in the Cold War."
In addition, the U.S. Air Force this week is completing the first deployment of an unmanned MQ-1 Predator drone in Latvia, also the first such deployment in European airspace.
He said the move could help pave the way for greater use of drones in Europe, where congested airspace and logistical constraints have limited such opportunities thus far.
Eventually, the United States may regain its technological superiority with the deployment of stealth fighters that can't be seen by Russian radar, but that is not expected to happen before 2020.
With reporting by Reuters and Breakingdefense.com