Chinese Air Force Could Overwhelm Opponents

Australian analysts are starting to examine how combat between the U.S. and China over the Taiwan Strait might play out and what’s needed to produce a win for small, high-tech forces.

Wargaming, including an extensive simulation by Rand, has shown that the U.S. would generate a 6-1 kill ratio over Chinese aircraft, but the Americans would lose. Even if every U.S. missile destroyed an opponent, there would still be enough surviving attackers to shred U.S. tankers, command and control and intelligence-gathering aircraft, says Andrew Davies, program director for operations and capabilities, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in an interview with Aviation Week.

“The reason [the U.S.] lost was because the Chinese sortie rates and persistence carried the day,” Davies says. “Any American aircraft was operating out of Guam or Okinawa because the airfields in Taiwan were taken out in the first half hour [of the conflict]. So [U.S.] time on station over the Strait is quite limited.”

Another issue is where U.S. Navy aircraft would be based. “The issue that the U.S. has is, can the aircraft carrier get close enough to the fight?” Davies says. “The Chinese have been working since the [Taiwan] Strait crises of 1995-6 to deny the approaches to China to a carrier battle group. That’s why basing becomes an issue. A study that Rand did not formally publish has a scenario in which the attacking Chinese forces take as many losses as there are American missiles, but there were enough left for them to get among the [airborne] tankers and P-3s [reconnaissance] and [RC-135W] Rivet Joints [intelligence-gathering aircraft].

In fact, China now appears to have an operational anti-ship ballistic missile to threaten aircraft carrier groups at sea. Last week (Dec. 28) Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command said he believes the ASBM “aircraft carrier killer” has achieved initial operational capability even through it will continue undergoing testing for several more years. In the past, U.S. Navy officials have told Aviation Week that the chances of hitting a moving aircraft carrier with a ballistic missile are miniscule, but even the threat of such a missile would cause the carriers to be moved farther away from any Asian battle site.

“I would say that the military balance is undoubtedly shifting as China’s military expands faster than other regional nations,” Willard told a reporter for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “We have not seen an over-water test of the entire [ASBM] system. “The anti-access/area-denial capabilities, fully employed, will present a challenge to military operations in the region. That will have to be overcome.”

Such analyses prompted Davies to begin to analyze what really matters in terms of airpower for the U.S. and Australia in a potential confrontation with China. “Global air power [will require] long-range, stealthy, high-altitude aircraft that can stick around forever,” he contends. “They are basically an area-denial asset. They have powerful sensors so that if anything moves in their [sensor suite’s] footprint, it does so at great peril.”

That’s why Davies thoughts turned to high-persistence drones. These unmanned aircraft do not need to be B-2-sized, but perhaps a bit bigger than an F-15, is his early estimate. Unmanned aircraft will offer high persistence, particularly if the weapon load is not too big—something like the high precision Small Diameter Bomb.

Directed-energy weapons using high power microwaves, radio frequency pulses or lasers will become a part of the aircraft’s suite to attack sensors and communications.

Boosters of modern airpower hold up operations in Kosovo and Iraq as examples of how successful advanced technology is. But Davies questions whether pitting a handful of modern aircraft against minor military powers is a fair test.

“That’s an awful lot of money being spent to be able to kick around third-rate countries,” he says. “The silver-bullet platforms are fantastic . . . where a small number of them can completely overwhelm a relatively small power. ”

But when up against China, a small, high-tech force suddenly does not look as great.

“China has got thousands of redundant MiG-21s,” Davies points out. “Why not make them into drones? What if each one absorbs one of the four missiles that an F-35 can carry. A MiG-21 drone is not a significant threat, but if you [face] a thousand of them and only [have] 200 missiles, you can be overwhelmed.”


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