Beijing: Ageing and fewer US fighters flown by undertrained pilots have already fallen behind China's rapid fleet expansion, giving air superiority to Beijing in the Pacific region.

Gabriel Honrada, writing in Asia Times said that China's jet fighter force may have already caught up with the quality and quantity of the US, prompting new urgent calls in Washington to build up and modernize the US fighter fleet.

US Air Combat Command Chief General Mark Kelley said that America's combat air forces are 12 squadrons short of multiple aircraft types at the US Air Force Association's annual Air, Space, and Cyber Conference this month, as reported by the Air and Space Forces Magazine.

He cautioned that the US had departed the era of conventional overmatch, with US combat air forces less than half of what they were during the 1991 Gulf War, reported Asia Times.

However, exact aircraft numbers are highly classified; fighter squadrons generally consist of between 18 and 24 jets. "When you have conventional overmatch, strategic risk is low. But that's not where we've arrived in terms of conventional deterrence," Kelly said.

He noted that while the US Air Force needs 60 fighter squadrons, it has only 48 of those to carry out its missions for homeland defence, overseas contingencies, overseas presence and crisis response, said Honrada.

He added that while the US Air Force has nine A-10 ground-attack aircraft squadrons, they lack air-to-air and multirole combat capability.

Kelly said these fighter shortages are most acutely felt in the Pacific, noting that the US needs 13 fighter squadrons in the region but now has only 11.

Apart from squadron shortages, Kelly mentions that only three out of eight squadrons are transitioning to new aircraft, resulting in a fighter force that is smaller, older and less capable, reported Asia Times.

He pointed out that the US fighter fleet is, on average, 28.8 years old compared to 9.7 years in 1991, with readiness levels plummeting as pilots get only 9.7 flight hours a month, compared to 22.3 just before the 1991 Gulf War.

Kelly makes a case for a fighter force that will dissuade any opponent from contemplating war with the US, making the case that no country in its proper frame of mind would pick a fight with a country with 134 modernized, well-trained and well-equipped fighter squadrons.

To achieve these force numbers, Kelly states that the US must maintain a production target of 72 fighters per year and keep its allies at a comparable level of capability, as the latter will be critical force multipliers, said Honrada.

He proposes a 4+1 fighter force mix for the 2030s, consisting of F-22s, F-35s, F-15EXs, F-16s, and A-10s. The F-22 will be the primary air superiority platform to be supplanted by the upcoming Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter.

Moreover, in terms of qualitative improvements to its fighter jets, China has been steadily improving the quality of its jet engines, which were a significant handicap for its fighters, and substantially improving its air-to-air missiles to the point of exceeding Western models in some cases.