"Quantity has a quality all its own" is a phrase that's been popular in U.S. military circles for decades, and is most often attributed to Stalin. It's also variously attributed to Lenin, Mao and even former Sen. Sam Nunn. Regardless of its origin, the American defense establishment's response to that approach helped form the basis of U.S. military tactics and strategy during the Cold War. The Soviet Union may have had more tanks, ships, missiles, etc., but America's were going to be better. This response also extended to aircraft and the people who flew them — where the enemy's greater numbers in planes would be offset, it was hoped, not just with superior equipment but with better-trained operators of that equipment.
Like the old Soviet Union, current-day China is another potential U.S. adversary that has traditionally subscribed to a quantity-over-quality military philosophy, and is attempting to address this deficiency in its air force. The People's Liberation Air Force, or PLAAF, has recently embarked on a major revamping of its fighter pilot training in the hope of bringing its pilots' capabilities up to par with those of western "near peer" adversaries. Combine this development with the recent high-profile (air show, not operational) debut of China’s latest-generation fighter — the J20, designed to approach the capabilities of the West's best offerings — and the aggressive patrolling of the South China Sea, and the balance of power in the Pacific is worth renewed attention.
According to RAND Corporation's Lyle J. Morris and Eric Heginbotham, co-authors of a recent report on the Chinese air force’s plans for its fighter units, the new training will focus on "actual combat conditions ... manifested in training scenarios meant to mimic or simulate real-world battle conditions."
The United States has done this type of training for decades. The Navy's Fighter Weapons School, better known as Top Gun, was created in 1968 to teach pilots the art of "dogfighting," or traditional air-to-air combat, which was feared to be dying. The Air Force does similar training for its fighter pilots at its own Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, and four times a year hosts a massive, mock air-combat exercise called Red Flag, also conducted at Nellis.
But maybe most noteworthy, and worrying, for the U.S. defense community, is that the PLAAF's training revamp includes an emphasis on "free air combat" and "unscripted scenarios" — another aspect of air combat that has always kept U.S. air forces not just competitive but dominant in engagements. The good news is, creating fighter pilots who can operate autonomously (that is, without much help from ground control, unlike standard procedure for the old Soviet and current Chinese command structure) at a high level of air-to-air combat competency isn't easy, and certainly can't be done overnight.
Morris and Heginbotham note that RAND's research saw "shortfalls in pilot performance, including insufficient flight-lead skills and autonomy, lax discipline during daily training, poor tactics, and a lack of coordination with other PLAAF branches." These are characteristics and capabilities that U.S. air forces have always excelled at — aspects of air war that are part institutional culture, part societal.
In an age of increasing technologicalization, and with drone strikes in particular such a high-profile feature of current American military operations, it's easy to overlook the human element when it comes to thinking about modern military might. But until the world's fighter pilots are entirely replaced with remote pilots, or even artificial intelligence, the capabilities of the people physically sitting in the cockpit still matter. In the end, "The Right Stuff" — Tom Wolfe's famous phrase for the flying, fighting and personality qualities found in America's best military pilots — knows no international boundaries.