The challenges of fighting a near peer

Destroying a revetted target with cruise missiles: An RGM-109C Tomahawk arrives at and destonates over a revetted RA-5C Vigilante (retired USN asset).

Destroying a revetted target with cruise missiles: During weapon trials, an RGM-109C Tomahawk arrives at and destonates over a revetted RA-5C Vigilante (retired USN asset).

August’s edition of the Air Force Association’s magazine contains a fascinating and sobering look at how the USAF might fight (and take horrific losses) in a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict set a mere six years in the future.  One of the hallmarks of such a war would be that, for the first time in a half-century, US forces would have to contend with precision aerial attacks on their largely unhardened expeditionary airfields.

Only four of eight US bases in the western Pacific have hardened aircraft shelters, and three of them (Osan Air Base and Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, and Kadena Air Base in Japan) are easily within reach of hundreds of Chinese missiles.  The fourth (Misawa AB, Japan) is roughly 1,400 nautical miles from potential targets in the Taiwan Strait and almost as far away from the battle area as Andersen AFB in Guam.  This would present logistical challenges for even the long-legged F-15E Strike Eagle, whose combat radius is estimated to be approximately 685nm.

Forced by the tyranny of Pacific distances to rely on a small number of available/suitable facilities, the odds do not look good:

Currently, China has fielded about 400 conventional ballistic missiles and 250 cruise missiles that could reach bases in Japan and South Korea. Beijing also boasts a large fleet of advanced fighter-bombers.
The US currently operates from only two bases—both on Okinawa—that lie within 500 miles of the strait. Requirements of tanking, sortie rates, and infrastructure availability make Kadena the best theater base for a large fighter contingent.
In a crisis, one could find roughly 190 aircraft on the ground at Kadena. Virtually all of these would be parked in the open, as Kadena has only 15 hardened aircraft shelters.
The shelter shortage could be a critical vulnerability if Kadena ever came under attack from a sophisticated enemy—such as China—which has large numbers of advanced, long-range weapons ready at hand.
Consider a Kadena scenario, built around the following realistic assumptions:
•The attacking force finds two categories of targets: (1) stationary aircraft parked in the open, and (2) aircraft that have some measure of protection because they are airborne, taxiing for takeoff, or cocooned in hardened shelters.
•Of the total, nonsheltered parking space, 90 percent is covered by a massive missile attack. No parked aircraft has time to take off. Of this unprotected aircraft force, 75 percent is destroyed. All others are severely damaged.
•Taxiing aircraft escape without damage. Also undamaged, of course, are aircraft that are already airborne.
•Aircraft ensconced in hardened shelters ride out the attack undamaged. However, these bunkered aircraft are stuck on the ground due to massive debris on operating surfaces and more than 2,500 unexploded submunitions. They are targeted in follow-on attacks by cruise missiles.
Losses would be substantial. According to our calculation, only 82 of 268 aircraft deployed to Kadena—31 percent—would be available for postattack operations. These surviving aircraft are assumed to land at other airfields in Japan where specialized parts, maintenance personnel, weapons, etc., are unlikely to be available—further reducing their immediate combat capability.

Currently, China has fielded about 400 conventional ballistic missiles and 250 cruise missiles that could reach bases in Japan and South Korea. Beijing also boasts a large fleet of advanced fighter-bombers.

The US currently operates from only two bases—both on Okinawa—that lie within 500 miles of the strait. Requirements of tanking, sortie rates, and infrastructure availability make Kadena the best theater base for a large fighter contingent.

In a crisis, one could find roughly 190 aircraft on the ground at Kadena. Virtually all of these would be parked in the open, as Kadena has only 15 hardened aircraft shelters.

The shelter shortage could be a critical vulnerability if Kadena ever came under attack from a sophisticated enemy—such as China—which has large numbers of advanced, long-range weapons ready at hand.

Consider a Kadena scenario, built around the following realistic assumptions:

•The attacking force finds two categories of targets: (1) stationary aircraft parked in the open, and (2) aircraft that have some measure of protection because they are airborne, taxiing for takeoff, or cocooned in hardened shelters.

•Of the total, nonsheltered parking space, 90 percent is covered by a massive missile attack. No parked aircraft has time to take off. Of this unprotected aircraft force, 75 percent is destroyed. All others are severely damaged.

•Taxiing aircraft escape without damage. Also undamaged, of course, are aircraft that are already airborne.

•Aircraft ensconced in hardened shelters ride out the attack undamaged. However, these bunkered aircraft are stuck on the ground due to massive debris on operating surfaces and more than 2,500 unexploded submunitions. They are targeted in follow-on attacks by cruise missiles.

Losses would be substantial. According to our calculation, only 82 of 268 aircraft deployed to Kadena—31 percent—would be available for postattack operations. These surviving aircraft are assumed to land at other airfields in Japan where specialized parts, maintenance personnel, weapons, etc., are unlikely to be available—further reducing their immediate combat capability.

— Stillion, Dr. John.  “Fighting Under Missile Attack.” Air Force magazine, August 2009.

And the good news doesn’t end there.  By 2015, the PLA’s 2nd Artillery Corps is projected to have 500 CSS-5 ballistic and 800 DH-10 cruise missiles; the AFA’s scenario assumes each ballistic launcher will pack 750 1.1lb bomblets, similar to the M74 bomblet carried by the US Army’s Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).

The bomblets also are dispensed in a manner similar to the ATACMS dispensing sequence, with an assumed average pattern density of one bomblet every 51 feet. This gives each warhead an effective lethal radius against soft targets (such as aircraft parked in the open) of approximately 650 feet.

Warding off this kind of threat would be difficult. The key would be dispersal. China could theoretically saturate the entire airfield at Kadena with only 34 warheads. That would hit everything found on Kadena’s parking ramps.

Pentagon officials believe the PLA has about 100 launchers for CSS-6 missiles, so a highly scripted, well-rehearsed surprise attack like this would require fewer than half the available mobile missile launchers. China would still have plenty more for attacks on other targets.

Given the sheer number of missiles, and the bomblets carried by each, even robust air defences like Patriot PAC3 can get overwhelmed in short order.

The obvious solution would be to disperse assets to airfields further away—in the Marianas, Micronesia, and Palau—to avoid a concentration of mass attractive enough to invite surprise attack.  But this too presents major logistical hurdles:

Dispersal comes with an operational cost. With fighter and attack bases about 1,600 miles from the Taiwan Strait, sortie rates (and thus combat power) would be reduced by 40 percent or more compared to operations from Kadena.

Meanwhile, tanker support requirements would increase enormously—with about three tankers required to support every five fighters deployed. To fly the same number of combat sorties per day as if from Kadena, the US would need to deploy about 100 additional combat aircraft and 200 additional tankers.

Keep in mind that the entire Air Force inventory for tankers consists of 453 KC-135s and 59 KC-10s; almost 40% of the fleet would be required just for this one conflict.  And that’s just protecting Taiwan, without doing anything really adventurous like contemplating the permanent destruction of Chinese war-related industry and infrastructure further afield.

Mr. Stillion notes that the key is endurance; being able to preserve a significant amount of combat and support power until the adversary’s missile stores are expended.  Not the best strategy, but perhaps the best that can be mustered in a world of constrained budgets, assets and options.

One missing factor is what the Navy would be doing while all of this is going on.  One may reasonably suppose that the People’s Liberation Army Navy would have subs (and shore-bound anti-ship ballistic missiles) stalking the carrier battle groups, who would similarly try to deliver a knockout punch within the first few minutes of Day One.  It would have been nice for the AFA to paint a broader joint forces picture for this scenario, but I understand that this is not the core focus of this particular article.

That quibble aside, go read the whole thing.  It’s a lengthy article but well worth the time.

RELATED: Writing for Air Power Australia, Dr. Carlo Kopp analyses options for hardening RAAF airfields.

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3 Responses
  1. MichaelB says:

    It seems to me that as China grows in power, we are just going to have to accept that within their region of the world, they can more or less do as they please. I don’t like it any more than you do, but I don’t think we can do anything about it. The linked article makes a lot of good points about why. Although the details are different, I think a similar set of issues arise for the navy. Would you really feel comfortable sailing through the straights of Formosa in a one carrier battle group, with the usual number of escort ships, in a war with China right now? I wouldn’t. 10 years from now the balance will have deteriorated significantly.

    Indeed, the use of the term “near peer” is a good way to encapsulate it. Unless we overmatch any opponent by a large margin, fighting in their back yard is going to be darn tough. Even the considerable increase in the force structure I think would be sensible would only delay, not alter, that calculus. Hardening air bases, more tankers, longer range combat aircraft, more carriers*, etc. all help – but they only serve to raise the stakes on being a near peer. Even assuming some bumps along the road, China seems to be making rapid progress economically that will translate into growing military power. It seems unlikely to me we can move the goalposts far enough.

    None of that of course means that we should simply accede to things we do not like. But as China grows into a near peer power, we need to have a realistic assessment of their capabilities and what we can do about them. Like with the Soviets (or hopefully more amicably than with the Soviets really) we’re almost certainly going to be faced with a power that can largely decide what to do in its region with impunity. Hopefully we can find a modus vivendi that leaves us happy enough with what that turns out to be.

    • Chris Taylor says:

      I concur, but don’t hold out much hope for that modus vivendi to take shape.

      The best possible outcome is for political liberalisation to occur within China, obviating the need for any martial contest of titans. But it is hard to imagine a scenario wherein the corporatist/quasi-fascist PRC’s drive for regional and global influence adds up to peace.

      I rather see it and and the United States on a near-inevitable collision course for a very costly Asian war; probably through something more akin to a Berlin 1948 situation (with Taiwan as Berlin) rather than an invasion.

  2. MichaelB says:

    I agree on the best outcomes, though I wouldn’t discount the nuclear dimension. The fear of nuclear war has a way of concentrating people on what their vital interests are, and what the other guys vital interests are, and encouraging the development of good enough solutions. And while China is clearly pushing for expanded influence, they don’t seem to have the same kind of ideological desire to Take Over The World that the Soviets did.