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Friday, May 24, 2013

F-35 vs F-15SE: South Korea's F-X III Competition - Part I The North Korean Threat


South Korea's F-X phase 3 competition is among the largest fighter contracts in recent years. The multi-billion dollar contract includes the sale of 60 aircraft and related systems. South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has been tasked with evaluating the Eurofighter Typhoon, F-15 Silent Eagle and F-35 Lighting II for the F-X phase III. The goal of this series of articles is to determine which aircraft will best fulfill the security needs of South Korea. The most constructive method of determining what piece of military equipment a nation should purchase is to first establish what capabilities a nation needs to ensure its own national security. Any potential  fighter sale on behalf South Korea must first and foremost counter potential North Korean aggression. To a lesser extent, the chosen aircraft should be capable of supporting the continued US presence in the Pacific; South Korea is committed ally in the US "rebalancing" or pivot strategy (Source 1). The F-15 silent eagle and the F-35A will be extensively evaluated in terms of stealth, avionics, maneuverability, lethality (air to air capabilities), suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) or destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD), force interoperability, and air to ground strike capabilities.

The Omission of the Eurofighter:

Although the Eurofighter Typhoon is a participant in the F-X III program, the probability of the Eurofighter winning the competition is remote. The South Korean military has consistently chosen American equipment over those of other suppliers. Over the past decade, South Korea has imported over $6.2 billion dollars in US arms e.g. the KF-16, F-15K, PAC-2 Patriot Missiles, MGM-140 ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles, AH-64E Apache gunships, etc. (Congressional Research Service, 2011). Thus, the F-15SE and F-35 will be the primary focus of this article. The only strength of the Eurofighter bid is its strong industrial benefits. The current Eurofighter bid proposes 48 out of the 60 aircraft be assembled in South Korea. South Korea is struggling to develop a credible domestic fighter manufacturing capability hence the high level of emphasis placed upon technological transfer agreements in the F-X III deal. The winning contractor of the F-X phase 3 competition will assist the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) in the development of the indigenous KF-X fighter. EADS Cassidian would invest $2 billion in the KF-X project if the Eurofighter wins the F-X III. The 4.5/5th generation KF-X is scheduled to replace the oldest Republic of Korea Air Force's (ROKAF) F-16s in the 2020s.

The North Korean Threat

Image 2: SA-3B GOA Surface to Air Missile

Author's note: The security issues discussed in this article were judged to be the most relevant to the F-X III program and do not encompass all threats posed by North Korea (e.g. cyberware and the KPA Navy were omitted from this article). For a more detailed examination of North Korea's full military capabilities refer to the Department of Defense report "Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea  2012".

Special Forces

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea's military strength relative to South Korea decreased substantially; winning a war to unite the two Korea's is no longer a viable option for the Kim regime. The North Korean military's primary purpose is to ensure the survival of the Kim family dynasty (Department of Defense, 2012). Although South Korean and American forces have a substantial technological edge, the Korean People's Army (KPA) has procured many weapon systems to make any incursion into North Korea as costly as possible for South Korean and American forces. The North Korean military heavily relies upon asymmetric warfare to maximize the effectiveness of its obsolete conventional military equipment. For example, North Korea has invested heavily into special operation forces. The KPA maintains 200,000 special operations personnel which would infiltrate into South Korea with through tunnel networks, boats, planes, and submarines.

"The special forces' goal is to discourage both the United States and South Korea from fighting with North Korea at the earliest stage of war by putting major infrastructure, such as nuclear plants, and their citizens at risk...the North's special forces are a key component of its asymmetric capabilities along with nuclear bombs, missiles and artillery. Their job is to create as many battlefronts as possible to put their enemies in disarray." - Kim Yeon-su, Korea National Defense University

North Korea has utilized its special operation forces on numerous occasions within the Korean Peninsula:

"Perhaps the most daring example of the North Korean SPF capability and commitment is the Blue House Raid of 1968. On 17 January, 1968, a thirty-one-man  detachment from the DPRK‘s Special Purpose Forces (reconnaissance) breached the chain-link fence on the DMZ, donned ROK uniforms and infiltrated closer than one kilometer to the official residence of the ROK president, Park Chung Hee...Although the commando team was either killed or captured, they killed seventy-one (three were Americans) people and wounded sixty-six during their attempted exfiltration back to North Korea" - Major Troy P. Krause, 1999

For more information on North Korean special purpose forces, refer to "Countering North Korean Special Purpose Forces" by Major Krause.

Conventional Forces - Air Defenses 

Image 3: North Korea acquired the Mig-29B/UB from the Soviet Union in 1988 as part of a set of broader military cooperation agreements. The Mig-29B is a less capable export variant of the original Mig-29. The KPAF also aquired the Mig-23ML and Su-25K aircraft during this period (KPA Journal, 2011). 

The Korean People's Air Force (KPAF) is tasked with the defense of North Korean airspace. The KPAF is staffed by 92,000 personnel and maintains 1,300 aircraft. Most of these aircraft were originally designed in either China or the Soviet Union during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The KPAF suffers from a number of deficiencies: 
  • Despite the impressive 1,300 figure, poor maintenance and lack of spare parts ensures that far less than 1,300 aircraft would actually be operable during a war.
  •  Pilot training is poor in part due to the limited flying time allotted to KPAF pilots. 
  • The KPAF would also be dependent upon China for fuel imports to sustain combat operations in the long term. 
  • Many of the aircraft in the KPAF inventory are simply too old to be combat effective: For example, the Mig-17F and Shenyang F-5 are incapable of beyond visual range combat. The Mig 21, J-7, and J-7B compose the backbone of the KPAF fighter force and pose only a moderate threat against modern western fighter aircraft if allowed to enter visual range. The only fighter aircraft that poses a serious threat to South Korean and American forces is the Mig-23 ML (46 in inventory) and Mig-29B/UB (45 in inventory including trainers).  

Image 4: KPAF order of battle. (Image retrieved via The Aviationist, 2013)

The KPAF has not been able import any modern fighter aircraft since the Soviet deal in 1988. The current state of political relations has kept North Korea from receiving any substantial military equipment imports and this trend will likely continue into the future. Many of the same types of aircraft in the KPAF's current inventory were ineffective against Western forces in both Desert Storm and Kosovo. Furthermore Israeli pilots in F-16's and F-15's effectively established air superiority against Arab air forces equipped with much of the same equipment as North Korea (e.g. Mig-19, Mig-21 and Mig-23). Given both the level of hardening many North Korean military bases feature and the number of surface to air missiles deployed, its clear Pyongyang does not put a great deal of faith in its own Air Force.

Image 5: North Korean air defense network: purple = SA-5 Gammon , red = SA-2 & HQ-2 , Cyan = SA-3B GOA. Image Credit: Sean O'Connor. 

The North Korean integrated air defense system (IADS) represents a more substantial threat to Allied aircraft than the KPAF. However, the surface to air missile (SAM) systems employed by North Korea are aging rapidly. North Korea's most capable SAM is the S-200 (SA-5) which was acquired in the 1980s in limited supply (36 missiles). North Korea has two active S-200 sites which pose a threat to ISR aircraft and strategic bombers but are minimally effective against maneuverable targets like fighter aircraft. The SA-3B GOA is a medium range SAM which provides air defense around Pyongyang and critical areas of the country. The backbone of the North Korean air defense is comprised by the S-75 (SA-2) Guideline acquired during the 1960s and 1970s. North Korea has both mobile SA-2 launch vehicles and fixed hardened SA-2 sites. 

Image 6: North Korea reportedly received 1,950 SA-2 Guideline missiles from the Soviet Union. A combination of electronic warfare aircraft and F-177 stealth fighters enabled coalition forces to destroy Iraqi SA-2 sites with minimal losses in Desert Storm. 

The KPA fields a variety of self propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAG) such as the ZSU-23-4. These weapons ensure that even after the KPAF looses control of the skies, North Korea will retain some anti-aircraft capabilities. However, SPAAGs are limited in range and would only pose a significant threat to low flying aircraft at close range. North Korean forces would also use man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to target low flying aircraft. The KPA has over 10,000 MANPADS including the modern Igla-1 (SA-16) which is similar in terms of performance to the FIM-92 stinger. However, North Korea places too much importance upon SPAAGS and MANPADS for its air defense:  

"One further issue to address is the overreliance on AAA and MANPADS' in the DPRK. The DPRK possesses some of the highest AAA concentrations in the world. The general concept is that combat aircraft will fly at lower altitudes to more easily evade SAM batteries, making them susceptible to AAA or MANPADS'. What the DPRK has overlooked is the fact that its SAM defenses are inadequate in light of current ECM and SEAD systems, allowing combat aircraft to fly at higher altitudes to avoid the bulk of the AAA and the entirety of the MANPADS threat. AAA is comparatively cheap and can be very effective in the right environment, but the DPRK seems to have seriously erred in its judgement." - Sean O'Connor

Image 7:  ZSU-23-4 

For a more detailed look at the North Korean IADS, refer to The North Korean SAM Network article from the IMINT & Analysis blog. 

Conventional Forces - Korean People's Army

"The Korean People’s Army (KPA) – an umbrella organization comprising ground, air, naval, missile, and special operations forces – ranks in personnel numbers as the fourth largest military in the world. Four to five percent of North Korea’s 24 million people serve on active duty, and a further 25-30 percent are assigned to a reserve or paramilitary unit and subject to wartime mobilization. The KPA fields primarily legacy equipment, either produced in, or based on designs of, the Soviet Union and China, dating back to the 1950s, 60s and 70s, though a few systems are based on more modern technology". - Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 2012

The KPA's greatest asset is its manpower with over 950,000 personnel. The KPA also fields 4,100 tanks (T-55, T-59, T-62, Chonma-ho, PT-76, and Pokpung-ho) and 2,100 other armored vehicles. As with the KPAF, maintenance is an issue and not all vehicles are combat ready. The T-55 and T-62 preformed poorly against both Israeli centurion tanks (originally from the UK) during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and against American M1A1 Abrams tanks in Desert Storm. Although South Korean and American forces have less tanks deployed on the Korean Peninsula, the qualitative edge of the allied tank force (K-1, K-1A, M1A1, and M1A2) is considerable. 

For an exhaustive look at the entire North Korean military inventory, refer to the North Korea's Conventional Arms graphic by the National Post 

Artillery & Ballistic Missiles 

Image 8: M1978 Koksan 170 mm self propelled artillery gun. North Korea deploys 36 of these weapons from hardened shelters, some are positioned along the DMZ.

Despite North Korea's recent progress in nuclear capabilities, the majority of sources agree that North Korea has yet to successfully engineer missile mountable warheads. North Korea's main deterrent still lies in its extensive conventional artillery and strategic rocket forces. Seoul, the capital and largest population center of South Korea, is 30 miles (50 km) from the DMZ. North Korea has positioned roughly 60% of its military assets near the DMZ including a sizable portion of its highly mobile rocket and artillery forces. North Korea maintains several types of high power Soviet artillery rockets (FROG-5 & FROG-7B). These rocket artillery units can relocate in a matter of minutes between hardened shelters. Furthermore, the KPA fields 8,500 artillery guns and 5,100 multiple rocket launcher systems which are camouflaged or stationed in hardened positions along the DMZ (Department of Defense, 2013). Victor Cha and David Kang estimate North Korea could launch 500,000 artillery rounds at Seoul in one hour. Estimates on the number of shells North Korea could fire at Seoul vary significantly but most analysts agree significant damage could be dealt to Seoul.

Image 9: North Korean No-Dong missile.

The consensus among most experts is North Korea would loose a war with the United States and South Korea but North Korea would inflict grievous damage to South Korean cities and infrastructure. Thousands of South Korean civilians would loose their lives in the conflict. The main guarantor of North Korea's deterrence is its strategic rocket force. North Korea maintains nearly 1,000 short range and theatre range ballistic missiles such as the SCUD-B, SCUD-C, SCUD-ER, Hwasong-5, Hwasong-6, No-Dong, and Musudan missiles. North Korea has manufactured hundreds of domestically produced Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6 missiles to supplement its stockpile of Russian Scuds. Most of the variants in the Scud family of missiles have poor accuracy and reliability. The SCUD-B has a circular error probable (CEP) of nearly 1 km meaning it would not be an effective weapon to target military targets unless launched in mass (50% of missiles would land within 900 meters of the desired target). However, these missiles would be effective as terror weapons as the Iran-Iraqi War showed. Both sides exchanged hundreds of Scuds missiles during the war and targeted civilians (RAND, 1991). These missiles have a payload of 1,000 kg which could include high explosives, chemical agents, or biological agents. Chemical and biological agents in particular would be effective terror weapons.

North Korea has access to sarin, mustard gas, and phosgene which it could equip to its Scud missiles. The old Soviet chemical weapons warheads typically contain one chamber meaning that if separate components are required to form the nerve agent, like Sarin, the components have to be mixed on the ground before use and would only remain viable for a limited duration afterward. (Noah Shachtman, 2012). In terms of biological agents, North Korea could equip its warheads with botulism, anthrax, and pneumonic plague (Richard Johnson, 2013).


The F-X III finalist must be able to:
  • Establish air superiority over the Korean peninsula 
  • Defeat the North Korean IADS 
  • Provide extensive air-to ground support to counter a variety of threats: enemy armor, hardened facilities, precision strike against KPA special operations units, etc.  
  • Collect and share intelligence effectively; North Korean targets are often camouflaged and highly mobile.  
  • Operate seamlessly with American forces 

  1. Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s “Rebalancing” Toward Asia, 2012
  2. KPA Journal vol 6, no. 2, 2011 - M1978 
  3. KPA Journal vol 2, no. 4, 2011 - Mig-29 
  6. Think Again: North Korea, DAVID KANG, VICTOR CHA, 2013
  7. The North Korean SAM Network, Sean O'Connor, 2010
  8. A Look At North Korea's Artillery Shows Why No One Wants War, Eric Talmadge,, 2013
  9. A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK
  10. North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation
  11. Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012
  12. A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK LONGER RANGE DESIGNS, 1989-PRESENT
  14. Syrian Bombs Are Now Filled With Chemicals — And Could Be Up for Grabs, Noah Shachtman, 2012
  15. Graphic: What Are North Korea’s Intentions?- National Post, 2013

Image 10: A North Korean Mig-29B intercepting an American RC-135S in 2003. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

X-47B Carrier Takeoff

Takeoff at 1:21 

Northrup Grumman's X-47B demonstrator was successfully launched from the U.S.S George H.W Bush earlier this morning. Despite the historic milestone set by the X-47B, Northrup Grumman still faces fierce competition for the UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike) contract. Both the General Atomics Sea Avenger and Lockheed Martin Skunk Works' "Sea Ghost" are formidable contenders (Boeing might submit a design of its own based on the X-45C Phantom Ray). Despite the fact that Northrop Grumman is America's third largest defense contractor, the company has been hit hard by the recent budget cuts to the Pentagon. The Global Hawk Block 30 has been canceled and the Block 40 variant is potentially on the chopping block as well. Northrup really needs the UCLASS win. The finalist of the UCLASS program will enter service in the 2018-2019 time frame.

Whomever wins the UCLASS contract, the United States will continue to maintain a dominant edge in UAV technology. With the possible exception of Israel, nobody comes even remotely close to the US in terms of UAV technology (no pun intended). A lot of media attention has focused on the rapid development of UAV's from Europe and China. The latter is especially a cause for concern if the rumors about China's new stealth drone (below) are true. The real measure of how capable the stealth Dassault nEUROn and the potential Lijian drone comes down to the effectiveness of internal sensors, software, and avionics not the airframe itself. Many countries have, to varying degrees of effectiveness, demonstrated an ability to design low observable airframes. However, the effectiveness of internal components are another story entirely. The United States has at least a ten year lead in terms of internal UAV systems. Passive stealth also remains an issue for many would-be UAV developers. Of all the areas of concern the United States has, in terms of loosing its technological edge relative to the rest of the world, UAV technology is certainly not a problem.    

More Info

Lockheed Martin's "Sea Ghost" concept video below. The Sea Ghost incorporates technology from both the RQ-170 Sentinel and the F-35C. Note how the Sea Ghost concept features a grill in the front similar to the RQ-170. Its also worth noting that the Sea Ghost concept does not feature the signature double humps located on the Sentinel . My prediction is the UCLASS contract will come down to the Sea Ghost and Northrup Grumman proposal as the finalists. To say Sunk Works has a reputation for aerospace excellence would be an understatement.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

F-X III Article Announcement

Image 1: F-15 Silent Eagle concept (Image Credit: Inhance Digital/Boeing)

Due to the very positive feedback from the of Canada and the F-35 article, I decided to continue to publish extensive articles regarding the F-35 and its export opportunities. Many viewers noted the length of the Canada and the F-35 article was a bit overwhelming but enjoyed the extensive analysis. Hence, this article will be released in multiple parts. If you have any further thoughts or concerns, feel free to let me know in the comments.

About the series:

The South Korean F-X phase III competition is arguably the most important export opportunity for the F-35 in the near term. The contenders for the 60 aircraft contract include the F-35A, F-15SE, and Eurofighter Typhoon. The series will seek to determine which aircraft best fulfills the requirements set by Korea and the series will extensively compare the F-15SE and F-35A. The Eurofighter will be addressed in the article to an extent but the chances of the Eurofighter winning the F-X III contract is nearly non-existent. The Eurofighter Typhoon is, in my opinion, "the best" 4.5 generation fighter currently in production. However, The Korean Government has historically shown a strong bias towards American military equipment and the Eurofighter is frankly outclassed by both the F-35 and F-15SE in numerous performance based criteria. Thus, the primary focus of the series will be the F-35A and F-15SE.

Due to the extensive research time required for each part of the series, it may take more than a week to publish the first part; Thank you for your continued patience. As an added note, some of the aforementioned updates originally planned for the Canada and the F-35 article will be featured in this article instead due to the overlap in material. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

China's Anti Access Strategy Part II: Air Power

Image credit: Department of Defense

The anti-access strategy discussed in Part I was largely created in response to the overwhelming defeat of the Iraqis by the Coalition forces in the 1991 Gulf War. The Iraqis had used many of the same Soviet and Chinese built weapon systems employed by the Chinese military at the time. Many of these weapon systems used by the Iraqis (e.g. J-7, Type 69, etc.) were minimally effective in combat against Collation forces. The extent of the Iraqi defeat caught China's military establishment off guard.

“The 1991 Persian Gulf War sent shockwaves throughout China’s military community and accelerated the PLA’s modernization and shifts in strategy. The United States’ overwhelming dominance in that conflict led Chinese military leaders to push for advanced military technologies.” - RAND, 2011

The People's Army Liberation Air Force (PLAAF) was a major beneficiary of China's new anti-access strategy. Since the Gulf War, the PLAAF has made major revisions and improvements to its pilot training programs, acquired several hundred capable 4th generation fighter aircraft, hardened its base infrastructure and procured much more capable munitions. Despite the incredible increase in capabilities since the early 1990s, the PLAAF still be incapable of global power projection. The PLAAF has neglected the development of air assets that assist in beyond regional power projection (e.g. tanker aircraft, new long range strategic bombers, securing forward deployed bases for aircraft in other countries, etc.). As stated in Part I, the PLAAF has been tasked with the goal of projecting power out to the second island chain by 2020 with the intent of denying a foreign military force from intervening on behalf of Taiwan. The PLAANAF and PLAAF would seek to establish regional air superiority, deny US sortie generation/basing, and destroy hostile surface vessels (RAND, 2008). This article will explain the role of the PLAAF and the People's Army Liberation Navy Air Force (PLANAF) in China's anti-access strategy and the changes two forces will undergo up to 2020.


Image 2: J-10A

Despite the recent media attention about China's stealth fighter programs, the bulk of China's air superiority capability will consist of non-stealthy 4th fighter generation aircraft for at least another decade. The majority of China's 3rd generation fighter and attack aircraft (e.g. J-7, J-8, J-8II) will be phased out by 2020. China acquired Su-30MKK, Su-30MKK2 and Su-27SK aircraft from Russia during the 1990s. Since the early 2000s, the PLAAF and PLANAF have procured hundreds of 4th generation indigenous fighter aircraft (e.g. J-10, J-11, J-15). The J-10 is the PLAAF's main light fighter aircraft and delivers comparable performance to the F-16C. The J-11A is a domestically produced Su-27SK built by Shenyang from Sukhoi supplied kits.   The Su-27SK (and J-11A) are comparable to the F-15C. Both the J-10A and J-11A will receive an assortment of upgrades to keep them viable into the 2020s.

"By the year 2011 China was the operator of the world's second largest fleet of Flankers, with about 73 Su-30MKK and 24 J-11B attack aircraft, 43 Su-17SK and 95 J-11A fighters, 40 Su-27UBK trainers in service with the PLAAF [for a total of 275], and at least 24 in service with the PLAN, for a grand total of about 300 airframes." - Global Security, 2013

In regards to the 5th generation J-20, the Department of Defense predicts the first J-20s to enter service in early 2018. Judging from the F-22 Raptor's production and deliveries schedule, I estimate that, at the very most, two full operational fighter squadrons will be in service by 2020 (48 aircraft). The Raptor production schedule should provide some indication as to how many aircraft can feasibly be produced a year but estimate should not be taken to be definitive. There is no officially released production schedule for the J-20 and its unclear how many J-20's China wants to procure in total.

Estimated J-20 Timeline

2011 – 2014(?) Tests
Production 2014-(?)
If: IOC 2018-2019
-          Late 2011 to 2014 (2015) Testing and development  ~3 years
-          2015 first lot order
-          2017 first deliveries
-          2018 IOC fleet size ~30 jets with 1 operational FS and ~8 T&E aircraft 
-          2020 fleet size  50-60 aircraft total with 36-48 operational aircraft 

Note: Not all aircraft will enter service as some aircraft will serve in a test and evaluation role while other airframes will be stored for attrition reserve. The role of the J-20 in China's anti-access strategy will be its own article for the sake of brevity. A link will be posted once it is completed.

In regards to the J-31: According to Avic, a Chinese aerospace consortium, the J-31 is an export only aircraft and will not serve the Chinese military (Aviation Week, 2013).

The PLAAF will continue to lack a sufficient number of dedicated tanker aircraft. The current PLAAF tanker fleet consists of a few modified H-6 bombers. The majority of these aircraft operate from Leiyang air base. Although the Chinese strategy focuses on regional power projection, the lack of tanker aircraft will limit China's ability to project power out to the second island chain. The only PLAAF asset that can engage targets in the second island chain is the H-6. The H-6 a Cold War relic that would probably not survive a conventional bombing mission over enemy territory unless complete air superiority was achieved. China has subsequently upgraded the H-6 to carry a series of powerful indigenous and Russian cruise missiles. These missiles will make the H-6 an effective standoff weapon platform and significantly augments the PLAAF's anti-ship capabilities.

China is also struggling to develop a capable airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft. Currently, the KJ-2000 is the only capable AWACS aircraft fielded by the PLAAF.

The list below is from Global Security and shows the complete PLAAF aircraft inventory. The chart has not been modified since the debut of the J-31 hence the use of the J-21 designation. Also, please note that China classifies its generation of aircraft differently from the West. The Chinese classification system is a generation behind the West. For example,  a third generation aircraft by the Chinese system is a fourth generation aircraft by the Western system and a fifth generation aircraft by the Western system is a fourth generation aircraft by Chinese standards.


Image 4: H-6 Bomber with a YJ-63 cruise missile. 

Note: The following is the best possible case scenario for China. There are a number of options the US and its allies can pursue to defeat China's anti-access strategy which I can discuss in another article provided there is interest.  

Although the PLAAF will lack a significant number of 5th generation aircraft until the mid to late 2020s, the sheer number of 4th generation aircraft deployed by the PLAAF (and PLANAF) is enough to deter any potential regional adversary. In order to achieve air superiority in the region, the PLAAF and PLANAF must disable or destroy both US regional bases and US carriers. The United States only maintains one airbase within 500 nautical miles of the Taiwanese strait (Kadena). Comparatively, China operates 27 airbases within 500 nautical miles of the Taiwanese strait. Chinese strategic planners know American carrier groups will inevitably attempt to bolster Taiwanese and regional US forces in the event of large scale hostilities. Its reasonable to assume the US would deploy three to four carrier strike groups which would partially erode China's numerical superiority provided they survive a gauntlet of several hundred medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) and cruise missiles. Forward deployed Flankers armed with cruise missiles could target US vessels 1350 km (729 nautical miles) away from mainland China (RAND, 2008). H-6 Bombers armed with DH-10 cruise missiles could strike targets more than 3,000 km or 1620 nautical miles away from mainland China (Department of Defense, 2011). China's strategic missile force will be discussed in greater detail in subsequent articles but the PLA Second Artillery Corps would preform a pivotal role in the conflict. The much touted DF-21D "carrier killer" MRBM could threaten US carrier strike groups 2,000 km or 1080 nautical miles from China (Department of Defense, 2011). 

In regards to land bases further than 500 nautical miles from China, the United States has several bases in South Korea and Japan. With the use of tanker aircraft, USAF aircraft operating from Misawa (J), Yakota (J), Iwakuni (J), Osan (SK), Kunsan (SK), and Anderson air force base could reach the Taiwanese strait or attack mainland China. However, Chinese short range ballistic missiles (SRBM) and MRBMs would pose a significant threat to all the bases listed above except Anderson AFB in Guam. Chinese strategic planers know the US currently maintains a qualitative advantage in terms of aircraft. Consequently, the easiest way to deal with the qualitatively superior US force is to destroy the aircraft on the ground before they become a threat in the air. The majority of US bases in the region are "soft" or are only semi-hardened which makes them vulnerable to a SRBM or MRBM strike with cluster munition warheads. In a scenario created by RAND, 144/243 aircraft operating at Kadena would be destroyed in a SRBM cluster munition strike. See Air Combat Past, Present and Future by John Stillion and Scott Perdue for more details. The remaining US forces will experience a massive hit to sortie generation as their runways will be damaged and the debris make operations hazardous (to aircraft engines). In the meantime, PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft can engage and destroy the remaining aircraft.

The PLAAF and PLANAF will play a pivotal role in implementing China's anti-access strategy. Chinese aircraft can easily project power out to the first island chain and are well on their way to achieving second island chain power projection by 2020. Although China's fighter aircraft are technologically inferior to their US counterparts, the sheer number of deployed Chinese forces will pose a serious threat to the United States and its allies in the event of hostilities.

Further Reading


  1. Avic Promotes J-31 As An Export Fighter, Bradley Perrett, Robert Hewson, Reuben Johnson, Bill Sweetman, 2013
  2. A Question of Balance Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute, David A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scot Tanner, Barry Wilson, 2009
  3. Jian-10 Multirole Fighter Aircraft, Sinodefense, 2009
  4. Jian-11 Multirole Fighter Aircraft, Sinodefense, 2009
  5. Su-27SK/UBK Air Superiority Fighter Aircraft, Sinodefense, 2009
  6. Soviet/Russian Cruise Missiles, Kopp, 2009
  7. Chengdu J-20 could enter service by 2018, Majumdar, 2012
  8. The F-22 Raptor: Program & Events, Defense Industry Daily, 2013
  9. China's Flankers, Global Security, 2013 
  10. Chinese Airborne Early Warning (AEW), Global Security, 2013 
  11. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, 2013  
  12. ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2011 
  13. ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2012 
  14. Hong-6 Bomber, Sinodefense, 2009
  15. XAC (Xian) H-6 Badger, Kopp, 2007