In an exclusive interview with Fox News, Gen. Mark Welsh, the head of the U.S. Air Force, warns that severe defense budget cuts will impact U.S. air superiority against enemies that the nation may not be thinking about right now.
“China and Russia are two good examples of countries who will be fielding capability in the next three to five years; if they stay on track, that is better than what we currently have in many areas,” Welsh said during a three-day visit to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
“Fighter aircraft in the next three to five years that have more capability than what we currently have sitting on the ramp. The F-35 will stay a generation ahead of them. F-22 will, too. Everything else we have will not stay ahead. The gap has closed.”
Until the first night of the air war against ISIS in Syria last October, the F-22 had never been used in combat. It's stealth, flies nearly twice the speed of sound and Fox News has since learned the F-22 has led nearly every air combat mission over Syria since.
“I think we saw a lot of what the F-22 can do, but you certainly didn't see all it can do,” Welsh said.
Welsh, who graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1976, is concerned about the future.
“By 8 to 10 years from now, we could be facing as many as 50 countries who use Russian and Chinese top-end fighters today,” Welsh said. When asked how much of Russia and China’s innovations in fighter jet technology is based on stolen U.S. technology, Welsh just smiled.
"When you look at pictures you go, ‘man -- that looks familiar,’" Welsh said during the interview with Fox.
And budget cuts have trimmed more than planes.
“We are 200,000 people fewer in the active component. That's 40 percent less than we were during the first Gulf War. It's a dramatically different Air Force," Welsh explained.
"It's a dramatically different Air Force."
- Gen. Mark Welsh
“We have to stop this drawdown and build a red line right now in the size of the active force.”
On his recent visit to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va. -- the brain center of the U.S. Air Force -- Gen. Welsh met with young airmen serving in the fastest-growing intelligence and surveillance hub in the Air Force.
The airmen pore over drone feeds from all over the world, in pursuit of the world's most dangerous terrorists. It is at Langley, home to Air Combat Command, where these members of the 363rd and 480th Air Wings, 18- and 20-year-old airmen, scour endless hours of drone feeds from around the world, choosing strike targets at their computers.
This intelligence is used by Predator and Reaper pilots sitting in the desert outside Las Vegas at Creech Air Force Base, striking targets halfway around the world. The Air Force has been losing more drone pilots than they can train, which has Gen. Welsh concerned and which has forced him to order a stop-loss.
“It's a serious problem if we can't fix it,” Welsh said. “The problem we have is the requirement has grown dramatically since 2008.”
“About 2008 is when we hit what we thought was the requirement, 21 orbits. Well, now we are at 60 and we are actually flying 10 more than we are manned for,” Welsh said. “Since 2008, they have been operating on 6 days, on 2 days, 12-hour days -- driving 45 minutes away and then when they surge they go to 7 days on, one day off and that schedule is just wearing them down.”
Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of U.S. Air Command, was the first to draw attention to the crisis in a memo to the chief that leaked in March.
"I just felt like we needed to say we are at that breaking point if we don't do something to normalize the system,” Carlisle said. "We've been in constant surge mode. We're burning them out."
And that's not all that is burned out. The aging fleet of fighter jets -- other than the stealth F-22 -- could soon be overtaken by Russian, Chinese and French warplanes.
“The gap,” Welsh reminds us, “has closed.”