Tough odds in a battle over Taiwan

by David A. Fulghum at 12/28/2010

Wargaming and simulations have shown that the U.S. would generate a 6-1 kill ratio over Chinese aircraft in the event of a conflict over the Taiwan Strait, but predictions are that the Americans would still 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: where would U.S. Navy aircraft operate from?

“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].

Such analyses prompted Davies to take a long look at and begin to analyze what really matters in terms of airpower and what the future may look like for the U.S. and Australia.

“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.

“There’s a $80 billion black budget, but I don’t think [directed energy weapons] will become a replacement for high explosives,” Davies says.

Boosters of modern airpower hold up operations in Kosovo and Iraq as examples of how successful advanced technology is. But Davies question 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. You can operate at will with very few losses.”

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. And they could arm the drones so that the threat has to be honored.  A MiG-21 drone is not a significant threat, but if you have a thousand of them and only 200 missiles, you can be overwhelmed.”

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