Has the Air Force already lost the battle for Taiwan?
In a recent town hall meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told airmen to prepare for a shift toward the Pacific. That should hardly come as a surprise, given the Obama administration's repeated declarations of a "pivot" toward the region. But if it is Dempsey's task as the nation's top military officer to make sure that plans are in place to defend the United States and its allies in the region, the "pivot" may have come too late for Taiwan. A recent detailed study concludes that the Chinese air force will badly outgun the U.S. Air Force in the skies over Taiwan and that the only hope for preventing Chinese air superiority over the island during a conflict is through the threat of heavy bombardment of the mainland, with all of the danger that implies. The study also demonstrates that the Air Force and Navy lack some of the proper tools for fighting in the Pacific's vast expanses.
In a Ph.D. dissertation written for the Pardee RAND Graduate School, Eric Stephen Gons provides an exhaustive analysis of a simulated battle between the U.S. and Chinese air forces for the airspace over Taiwan. Gons's analysis takes into account the air bases available to both sides, their aircraft parking capacity, air base vulnerability and hardening, air defense systems, sortie generation rates, aircraft maintenance requirements, crew fatigue, probable weapons effectiveness, time and distance considerations, and other factors.
Even though the U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor is far superior to its Chinese opponents, Gons concludes that the "tyranny of distance" will prevent the U.S. Air Force from winning a shootout over Taiwan. The Air Force's base on Guam, a three-hour flight to Taiwan, is the only viable U.S. base for the island's air defense. Although the U.S. has high quality air bases on Okinawa and Japan's home islands, these bases are very close to China and are thus vulnerable to China's massive arsenal of land-attack cruise and ballistic missiles. In addition, Gons asserts the Air Force would not operate its expensive and limited tanker and early warning support aircraft from these Japanese bases since they would be highly vulnerable to Chinese attack. This would preclude F-22 operations to Taiwan from these bases.
That leaves Andersen Air Base on Guam, which even when stuffed to capacity with F-22s and required support aircraft could only provide a continuous combat air patrol over Taiwan of just six fighters. The Chinese attackers, by contrast, operating from at least a dozen hardened and heavily defended air bases in southeast China, could sorties dozens or even hundreds of fighters over Taiwan at will. Six F-22s simply do not carry enough missiles to prevent Chinese fighters from breaking through and shooting down the Air Force tanker and early-warning aircraft supporting the F-22s east of Taiwan. In this case, the F-22s would be lost to fuel exhaustion and the United States would be forced to retreat, at least for the moment. Nor does Gons expect much help from the Navy. He estimates that the relatively short range of the Navy's aircraft carrier-based fighters, combined with the growing Chinese anti-ship missile threat, would dissuade the admirals from risking air operations over Taiwan.
Gons's most effective suggestion for leveling the balance over Taiwan is to use the Air Force's bombers and the Navy's cruise missiles to attack China's air bases. Most of these bases have hardened aircraft shelters, a few have underground aircraft parking, and all are defended by surface-to-air missiles and cannons. A sustained and costly bombing campaign would be required to beat down the Chinese air threat to Taiwan. Whether this requirement to bomb mainland China could deter Chinese action or would instead be an escalator to a much more costly war is up for debate. If future Chinese leaders don't consider this bombing requirement to be either a credible deterrent or something the United States would carry out, the apparent ease with which China could establish air superiority over Taiwan may be an invitation for China to attempt to reunify Taiwan by force.
Gons's study shows how difficult it is to project air and naval power against a capable opponent operating from continental bases. It also shows that the Air Force's short-range fighters, conceived during the 1980s for the confined European theater during the Cold War, will struggle to be useful in the Pacific's vast spaces. The Obama administration has pivoted to the Asia-Pacific. The Air Force and Navy need to adapt if they are to effectively support the new strategy.