China’s small number of J-20s can only launch from land-runways and its carrier-launched J-31 is just arriving. The US Air Force has more than 300 F-35s

by Kris Osborn

It would make a lot of sense and greatly reinforce the Pentagon’s deterrence posture in the Pacific if there were immediate moves to forward position as many 5th-generation aircraft as possible such as F-22s and F-35s.

Why? For the same reason the Pentagon needed to send more F-35s to Eastern Europe right away following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the moment, it seems unlikely that either Russia or China could truly challenge the US and NATO in the air. China is likely aware of this, as its small number of J-20s can only launch from land-runways and its carrier-launched J-31 is just arriving. The US Air Force alone, however, has more than 300 F-35s. Even if a J-20 could rival an F-35 in the air, and there are few if any indications that it could, there simply are not enough of them to counter multiple squadrons of networked US F-35s. “Mass matters,” to quote the famous Sun Tzu. Should the US achieve air superiority quickly in some kind of war over Taiwan with China, Chinese amphibious attacks could rapidly be destroyed from the air.

The challenge with this is simply finding a way to get enough of them forward positioned to present a credible and available deterrent against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. An ability to get there fast enough in large enough numbers would seem to be the challenge, as 5th-generation US and allied aircraft would need to be within striking distance of a Chinese amphibious attack on the surface. Taiwan is only 100 miles from mainland China and could quickly be reached by land-launched J-20s or amphibious warfare formations on the surface. On top of this, China has a sizable arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of reaching Taiwan.

The challenge for the US, then, would seem to reside in finding a way to get enough forward positioned F35s such that China would be forced to pause or simply hold off on an invasion. How might US F-35s get there? Well, Japan has recently launched a very large, multi billion F-35 buy, but the timing of their arrival in large numbers may not yet be known. However, the key part of the Southern Japanese islands are within 500-to-600 miles of Taiwan. There is also the US territory of Guam which is within striking distance of Taiwan, however Australia and most parts of South East Asia may be too far away for F-35s to arrive in time to destroy a Chinese amphibious landing.

The key to available F-35s in the Pacific may be with the US Navy, as it has the ability to forward operate large numbers of warships in the region. This not only includes things like Carrier Strike Groups heavily armed with F-35Cs but also amphibious assault ships. An often lesser recognized element of today’s America-class amphibious is that they can operate and deploy as many as 15 F-35s on a single ship, a dynamic which could help the US mass 5th-gen airpower in the waters near Taiwan quickly. Speed would be of the essence in this kind of scenario, as a Chinese amphibious assault would need to be destroyed from the air before landing ashore on Taiwan. Should Chinese forces become dug-in or entrenched on land in Taiwan, it would seem extremely lengthy, costly and deadly to attempt to “extricate” them from the island.

5th-generation Air power might truly be the only thing capable of stopping a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan, perhaps alongside US attack submarines. The Chinese Navy is already larger than the US in terms of sheer size, however that does not mean it is in any way superior. Nonetheless, the current PLA Navy, now armed with several carriers and a new class of quasi-stealthy destroyers and heavily armed warships, might see itself in an advantageous position should there be a maritime warfare encounter.

China’s land force, while less relevant in any kind of rapid attack on Taiwan, is also quite large and formidable. In the air, however, just looking purely at numbers, the US would seem well positioned to achieve air supremacy quickly. The key to stopping a Chinese annexation of Taiwan, it would seem, lies with the F-35. Should the Pentagon be able to forward position enough of them on land and at sea in the Pacific, Chinese advances toward Taiwan could potentially be stopped. The mere presence in sufficient numbers might be sufficient to prevent China from actually launching an all out amphibious attack.

When it comes to any kind of a quick assessment of Chinese air power, one might wonder if the PLA Air Force has enough 5th-Generation fighter jets to achieve air superiority in support of an amphibious attack on Taiwan. Added to this equation, China may not have enough aerial refuelers to project air power across continents or even sustain long-dwell fighter jet attack campaigns over Taiwan, given that J-20s would need to launch from land.

Perhaps recognizing this potential deficit, and the absence of carrier-launched J-31, the Chinese Air Force is quickly moving to expand its fleet of air-to-air refuelling aircraft. This may also be an effort to close a visible tanker deficit with the U.S. and more fully project global air power.

The U.S. operates as many as 625 tanker aircraft, whereas China is listed as only having three, according to Global Firepower. This lack of tankers would limit or even imperil any Chinese effort to launch a large-scale cross-continental air campaign.

China already has fewer 5th-generation aircraft when compared to the U.S., NATO and Pacific allies. The absence of tankers makes it very difficult for Chinese fighter jets, with a likely combat radius of 300-to-500 miles, to travel thousands of miles across a continent or ocean area.

China can still easily reach Japan, Taiwan and possibly Australia, India and parts of Southeast Asia, however a cross-continental air-attack is likely out of reach. There are a few things China is doing quickly to address this deficit. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is developing a new tanker-variant of its C-130 and C-17-like Y-20 Cargo plane.

“The PLAAF is developing the Y-20U, a new tanker variant of its large Y-20 heavy-lift transport, which will enable the PLAAF to significantly expand its tanker fleet and improve its power,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.

China may be accelerating the pace of construction of these Y-20 tankers to align with its much discussed evolving plan to achieve global domination by 2049. Should the attack ranges of its fighter jets and bombers such as the new H-20 be able to double their range, it opens up an entirely new mission envelope for the PLAAF.

This opens up an entirely new sphere of attack options for China. Nonetheless, the lack of tankers is likely one of many reasons why China is vigorously expanding its footprint and influence around the world to include more locations in the Middle East and Africa. Much of China’s incursions into Africa, apart from the emergence of a military base in Djibouti, are economic or business-oriented in nature. Any ability to base aircraft in parts of Northern Africa greatly improves the PLAAF’s ability to reach the European continent for potential air attacks.

This is extremely significant, because without a larger tanker fleet or substantial forward positioning, China would be ill equipped to handle any kind of air confrontation on a large scale beyond its own immediate region.

At the same time, a lack of tankers does not limit China’s ability to attack Taiwan or possibly even Japan. Japan, however, can be as far as 1,000 miles off the coast from parts of mainland China, depending upon take-off point. Therefore refuelling, or amphibious forces, might be needed should China need to launch an invasion of Japan and give its fighter jets reach and dwell time.

Along these lines, a multifunctional Chinese Y-20 variant could make a large difference regarding amphibious attacks. Not only could the large cargo aircraft deliver supplies, ground troops or weapons to an amphibious landing area should a beachhead be secured, but it could enable fighter aircraft to help an amphibious attack pursue air superiority. China is quickly expanding its amphibious assault capacity with new ships and drones, therefore having additional, sustained fifth-generation airpower in support of amphibious assaults could bring an entirely new dimension to Chinese threats to Taiwan and other areas.

Should US carrier-and-amphibian-launched F-35s be unable to secure the air in time in the event of a surprise Chinese air attack on Taiwan, just how vulnerable would Taiwan be to a Chinese fighter jet air attack? On several occasions in recent years, China has flown J-10s and J-16s over Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. Could Taiwanese air defences stop Chinese air attacks?

Taiwan does not appear to have large numbers of air defences or advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMS). Taiwan is known to operate Patriot missiles and is in the process of acquiring more according to numerous news reports, yet Patriot interceptors are not equipped to counter fighter jets. A Patriot can track and destroy an incoming ballistic missile to a growing extent, to include multiple manoeuvring targets at once, yet it falls well short of being able to attack overhead fighter jets.

Could Taiwan counter any Chinese fighter jets with SAMS? Maybe, but it may come down to a question of scale, numbers and territory. Should Taiwan have effective SAMS, would there be enough of them over wide enough of a range to counter a large Chinese air campaign? That may be unclear. Taiwan does have domestically-engineered Sky Bow-III Tien Kung Surface to Air Missile systems built by the Taiwan-based National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology. The weapons have an ability to track and intercept ballistic missiles, fighter jets and other airborne threats out to ranges of approximately 200 km, according to a report last year in Army Technology.

“TK-III land-based air defence weapon system is composed of surface-to-air missile, canister, and mobile fire control units, including phased array radar, communication relay, engagement control station, launcher, and power plant equipment,” the Army-Technology report says. The Skybow, the Army-Technology report says, is engineered with an active radar guidance system, internal midcourse guidance and microwave seeker in the nose of the missile for accuracy.

The Skybow has “four tail fins and is vertically launched. A directional warhead with high-energy fragments enables the missile to destroy targets with high single-shot probability of kill. The missile launcher has four containers which support both TK-III and TK-II missiles,” the Army-Technology report states.

The weapons are in the process of being integrated into fixed locations around Taiwan.

Radio Taiwan International published a report in Aug, 2021 saying Taiwan is building and renovating 12 missile bases in Miaoli to house Skybow 3.

These SAMS are fortified by additional air surveillance technologies and weapons interceptors, according to a military analysis journal called “IMINT & Analysis.” In a 2021 essay, the Journal says Taiwan operates eleven EW facilities, twenty-two fixed missile batteries occupied by HAWK, Patriot and Tien Kung SAMs.

“These systems have engagement ranges of 40 kilometers, 160 kilometers, and 200 kilometers, respectively. A further twenty two Skyguard facilities are located to provide close-in defence of key population centres and military facilities, some of which are equipped with 18 kilometre range RIM-7M Sparrow missiles,” the Journal states.

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