The US military is looking towards China as the biggest threat in the foreseeable future. Every year the Chinese keep increasing their defense budget and modernizing their armed forces, all the while rattling their sabers and acting like the armed invasion of Taiwan is just around the corner.
While the Chinese might very well do something stupid like launch an invasion across the Formosa Straights, I’m not convinced that they’re as much of a problem as anyone trying to guard a defense budget says they are. As long as the US and her allies stand by Taiwan, they don’t have a realistic chance of taking the island by force.
This essay by Harold C. Hutchison at Strategypage.com examines the changes being made in the Chinese Air Force. (Post from April 9, 2005.) While the PLAAF has huge numbers of aircraft, the majority are outmoded models that wouldn’t stand a chance. Even the modernized aircraft that the Chinese can bring to bear couldn’t be used to their full potential due to a lack of force-multiplying support aircraft and low levels of pilot training.
It’s worth a read, if only because most observers have been focusing on the naval situation and missing the air force picture.
37 thoughts on ““…Clubbed Like Baby Seals””
However, in an invasion, the Chinese only have to make it a bloody draw in the air war. To repel an invasion US/ROC/Japan have to gain air superiority. Stealth will be a huge edge in an air war vs China.
I ask myself why would China want to risk war with their number one trading partner and my logic says that do not. However, I am not Chinese and maybe their logic is different than mine.
I can understand why they rattle the sabers over Taiwan-a matter of pride maybe as well as economics. BUt to risk war with the west? I don’t know. Maybe at some point in the future but not in the near future.
GuyK, change the question to “under what circumstances would the Communist Party leadership think war with Taiwan was better than the status quo?” Then you can start to imagine plausible scenarios, such as civil unrest potentially leading to the end of this “dynasty”. Then a war to rally the country may seem like a better bet than a firing squad or being torn limb from limb by a mob, or even a flight on an air force jet to exile in Burma. “China” is one thing. What is good for “China” is no war. What is good for the people who make decisions on behalf of “China”, unaccountable people, may well be another question.
I should point out that the in a recent exercise the India Air Force mopped the floor with the US squadron they were facing. Being the unchallenged top dog can make you slack.
Lex, maybe. But then again maybe not. Many chinese now have a taste of capitalism and the good things capitalism will buy. If the leaders wanted war would the public follow? Or would war cause a revolution in China? Maybe depends on what kind of shape the economy of China is in at the time. I can only speak from what I have learned from some Chinese green card holder importers that I used to deal with. Of course they want continued trade with the USA-its money in their pockets.
Shannon’s comment reminds me of the value of occasional defeat.
My daughter has the flu today, and without it her immune system wouldn’t have the machinery to ward it off next time.
This is the paradox of any defensive system. One must lose up-front in order to win on the back side.
The Oriental culture has accepted these paradoxes much more readily than our Occidental, linear one.
It could be this cultural difference that Chinese military planners are banking will give them the initial edge in any military conflict with the West.
Note it was the Americans who suffered the up-front defeat at the hand of the Indians, intentionally. I do not know the figures, but I would suspect our flyers have “fought” and lost dozens, if not hundreds, of times more often in such exercises than the
Chinese. The only thing the Chinese have going for them is location and quantity.
Incognito, you’ve got it exactly backwards. For an invasion to succeed, China must prevail in the air. If Taiwan (and the US) can maintain a stalemate in the air, then any attempt at invasion would be foolhardy.
Read your history. Study the Battle of Britain.
Shannon, the kind of exercise you’re talking about is totally unrepresentative of a real shooting war.
A real shooting war isn’t fought jet-to-jet or even squadron-to-squadron. It isn’t even fought airforce-to-airforce. It’s fought total-military-to-total-military, and in a real shooting war the Indian air force would get creamed.
Did this exercise include an American JSTARS? Were they using simulated AMRAAMS (AIM-120)?
Was there a simulated Tomahawk strike against defending airfields at the beginning of the exercise? Did Indian C&C suffer simulated attacks before the jets got into the air?
I seriously doubt it.
Actually, the India-US air combat simulation that Shannon refers to was totally shocking to the media, and they made some major hay about it.
But it wasn’t unexpected at all. As this post at Strategypage.com points out, the US deliberatley agreed to cripple thier capability in order to give the Indian Air Force a better than fighting chance.
One thing that the artificial conditions forced US pilots to do was use tactics for which they are not trained and for which the weapons we have are not suited. The best way to think about it would be if the US pilots were suddenly forced to use equipment from 1980 or so, while they’ve trained to get the best performance out of 21st Century weapons.
As Stephen pointed out, US air power would, at the start of hostilities, move to limit the air power of any enemy. We would do this through stealth bombing attacks of airfields, the use of Wild Weasel aircraft to sytematically destroy anti-aircraft and radar sites, and the destruction of command and control infrastructure through a combination of bombing and jamming. No provision was included in the excercise to simulate this. Instead the rules called for the US side to simulate fighters that operate at a severly crippled level from what we have now, and to fight while outnumbered to boot.
This isn’t to take anything away from the superb performance of the Indian pilots and their officers. They carefully studied every day’s performance, and they never repeated a mistake. They are truly professionals in every sense of the word. But they would still be slaughtered if they were to come up against the US Air Force for real.
If there is a short conflict, the resulting compromise will be ushered in by Walmart and aptly titled the Bentonville Accord. However, should the Southeast Asian conflict remain prolongued and highly destructive, this will require a more comprehensive and far reaching solution. The Walton Doctrine is born…
I didn’t know any of the details of Indian Air force exercise. I just tossed it out as an example.
I doubt the Chinese could actually defeat Taiwan or the US in a straight out fight. However, the Chinese do have the option concentrating their training on the one particular mission of fighting the US over Taiwan. The US can’t specialize like that. Their social/political system also raises the possibility that they could field an elite cadre of highly skilled pilots like the Japanese did at the start of WWII.
Since WWII, the US military has usually been caught off guard by low-tech yet effective weapons and tactics. The Iranian speedboats comes immediately to mind. I think the Chinese best bet would be to use a large number of lightweight units deployed in swarms. For airpower, they could use cruise missles on the technological order of the WWII buzz-bombs but guided by their own custom GPS system. For sea power, they could use large numbers of small short range craft each equipped with a torpedo, short-range anti-ship missile, and shoulder fired anti-aircraft. For undersea power, they could rely on mines.
Such a air and sea swarm would be difficult to stop. Our air and sea defenses are set up to destroy large high value units like ships, manned aircraft and ballistic missiles. I think they could be easily saturated by cheap swarms.
Mitigating against the Chinese using such tactics is that the tactics require a lot of independent command, even if we postulate a secure network for communication. Each small boat/ship would require its own captain. Each land unit they might put ashore would require their own combat leader who could fight effectively entirely on his own. The Communist system, even the modified one they have today, does not produce that kind of leadership.
Excellent thoughts Shannon, I agree. Keep an eye also on the Russia/China connection. When I was there, I lived near a fairly good military academy. It was a small city, but nonetheless, Chinese PLA officers were common to see on the streets.
the Battle of Britain teaches do not send bombers on air missions without fighter support. It is not a pretty sight seeing bombers being shot down like sitting ducks because of no fighter cover.
Large scale smal boat and air drops migh manage to get quite large numbers of infantry ashore.
But, what about artillery and armour? What about ammunition and othe supplies? What about reinforcements? etc.
Without all that, an invasion force might wreak havoc for a while, but would end up as great big pile of corpses and prisoners.
I still suspect the prime motivator of China in it’s force build up and anti-secession law is to deter Taiwan from a declaration of independence that would wreck Chinese govt. prestige.
Though it would be folly not to plan to stop an invasion, and to clearly signal to China that it would be stopped, and to Taiwan that no declaration of independence will be supported.
If China ever does decide to move, it will be because of a domestic political crisis developing. And most likely it will try to torpedo the US economy first (say 6 to 12 months previous?) by dumping all its dollar holdings.
I’m also led to understand that the Taiwanese military is specifically optimised and trained for repelling just such a PLAN/PLAAF/PLA invasion.
I mean, it’s not like the Taiwanese are idiots or something. Their shorelines and landing areas must be astoundingly well-defended.
no, coastline is heavily populated. Second largest city/major port Kaohsiung is right on the water. having been there, the geography does not lend itself to be easily defended.
Geographically, Taipei is better located for defense, being surrounded by mountains.
In the event of an invasion that managed to put in a large landing force, Kaohsiung would become Stalingrad-by-the-Sea. Not a fate I wish on any city. The PLA really has a tough nut to crack here. They would have to hope that a political solution would rapidly follow an attack. Situations have a way of getting out of control, though. Let’s hope it does not come to that.
OK, Euroyank, let’s go through it.
Military problem: crossing the Channel.
Problem with boats:
(A) Royal Navy Home Fleet can shoot up your boats
(B) Royal Air Force Bombers can bomb your boats
Solution to (A): Luftwaffe torpedo planes to destroy the Home Fleet before it can reach your boats.
Solution to (B): Luftwaffe fighters to destroy RAF bombers before they can reach your boats.
Problem for Luftwaffe: RAF Fighter command.
RAF fighters can easily neutralize and shoot down torpedo planes, thus allowing the Home Fleet to reach your boats.
RAF fighters can keep Luftwaffe fighters busy, thus allowing RAF bombers to reach your boats.
THEREFORE: a cross-channel attack against the UK in 1940 is impossible without first destroying RAF fighter command.
The initial campaign in the Battle of Britain combined use of Luftwaffe medium bombers and Luftwaffe fighters. The bombers attacked RAF Fighter Command facilities such as radars, airfields, C&C.
The bombers also lured RAF fighters into the air, where Luftwaffe fighters could engage them in an attrition campaign.
But for a variety of reasons much too involved to go into here, the Luftwaffe never did outright break RAF Fighter Command. Thus Seelöwe was cancelled and the UK was never invaded.
The lesson of the Battle of Britain is that the invading force must absolutely control the air over the water for any amphibious invasion to succeed.
(Note that when the invasion went the other way, in 1944, that the British and Americans did absolutely control the air over the invasion fleet.)
Lex, even if the PLA managed to control a major port on Taiwan, which they absolutely would have to do in order to have any chance of success, they cannot prevent Taiway or the US from mining the waters in and around that port, and the PLAN doesn’t have any credible mine-clearing capability.
Modern sea mines are dreadfully hard to find and neutralize. They’re small, they sit on the bottom, and they listen. When they hear something which sounds like what they’ve been programmed to attack, they release something a bit like a short-range torpedo which moves to and strikes the target. They can be delivered by bombers, by missiles and by submarines.
What good does it do to capture a port if the waters of that port are mined, and if they keep being re-mined every time you managed to clear the mines? (Never mind the fact that the PLAN has no ability to credible mine-clearing capability.)
Boy did that come out garbled. Sorry. (Preview is my friend!) But you know what I meant.
SDB is right. Total air superiority is absolutley essential for any over-water invasion. Trying to move troops by ship in a contested air situation leads to massacres like the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. I wonder if a PLA strike with missiles could destroy all Taiwanese airfields capable of operating fixed wing aircraft? SDB pointed out a few posts ago that the India v. US Air Force matchup doesn’t say much since a real conflict is total-military v. total-military. So, could PLA obtain “air superiority” by using its missile force to destroy the Taiwanese airfields, followed up by a massive air attack with aircraft on whatever survived? Even then, how do you maintain control of the Strait? Even if the PLA were to put a large army onto Taiwan, how could it be sustained and supplied? Its air and sea transport could be destroyed by Japanese and American air and naval power.
A thought that has occurred to me is that the Chinese would fire a “shot across the bow” if the Americans and Japanes tried to intervene: A nuclear attack on Guam and Okinowa, to destroy the regional US bases. Announce that China is engaged in internal policing, and the next round of shooting will be aimed at population centers in the homelands. I wonder if the American and Japanese publics would decide that Taiwan was not worth a nuclear war with China. Meanwhile, our military in the region would be severely damaged by these attacks, and possibly rendered unable to intervene effectively.
he Chinese leadership would have to believe that a quick, decisive victory was possible, or that they could brass their way through by being harsher and more aggressive and shock the rest of the world into accepting the outcome.
SDB, agreed that mines could render seaborne support for the invading army difficult or impossible. Could airlift sustain the invading army? How much staying does the Taiwan Army have? Will they switch over to Peoples’ War and wage an insurgency struggle once the main force has been crushed? Can they keep it going for months, inflicting maximum political damage on the Mainlander leadership? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.
It makes me more comfortable overestimating the PLA than underestimating them. They have a section of the general staff, with the best and brightest at their disposal, whose full time job is to think of ways to defeat the West in a cross strait invasion. Few people in 1939 thought Poland would fall in 6 weeks, fewer still knew even who Guderian was. It’s safe to assume they are planning under all of the above mentioned conditions. The Chinese have a terrible track record in modern warfare, but then again, they gave the world Sun Tzu.
I think China might pull it off if they merely threatened, but an actual nuke attack would put Jacksonian America into Pearl Harbor mode. The popular question would not be “Can we afford to risk war with China over Taiwan?” but rather “What might they do next if we give in to them now?” In that case I think a US nuclear counterattack against mainland military targets would be likely.
Lex, there’s not a chance that the PLAAF could support a sufficient ground force on Taiwan.
Icognito, overestimating an enemy is nearly always a worse mistake than underestimating him. You don’t treat enemies with contempt, but if you cower in fear from imagined threats, you will be immobilized. (Read about McClellan’s campaigns in the US Civil War. Then read about the first 24 hours of the Anzio landing in Italy.)
Lex, if the Chinese use a nuke as a “warning shot” and hit anything we own, American doctrine is to obliterate China. (As was also the case with the USSR.) American doctrine is also to respond to any verbal threat to use a nuke against us with a maximum strike. Those policies have been in place since the 1950’s, and I don’t believe that the Chinese leadership is deluded enough to think they could get away with the kind of thing you’re talking about.
As to the question of knocking out Taiwan’s airfields with missile strikes, there are two problems with that: Taiwan has Patriots, and the US has carriers (and a major airbase on Okinawa).
There’s also the problem of Taiwan’s submarines, not to mention American submarines. An LA class attack sub can locate and sink an enemy ship from a range of more than 15 kilometers with one wire-guided torpedo, and each LA sub carries something like 50 such torpedos. Taiwan’s subs aren’t quite that good, but they’re not to be sneezed at.
And even if China managed to clear the skies of hostile aircraft, surface-to-surface antishipping missiles are cheap and plentiful and damned hard to stop. We have defenses against them (AEGIS) but the PLAN doesn’t.
And when ships get close to Taiwan, they can be hit with artillery.
One time I wrote an analysis of why I didn’t think a chinese invasion was militarily credible, and I came up with at least six different problems China couldn’t solve, any one of which would be sufficient to make an invasion fail.
Incognito, I don’t doubt that there’s a group of best-and-brightest trying to figure out ways to invade Taiwan. I’m also not impressed. “Clever” doesn’t clear mines or intercept anti-ship missiles.
And “clever” doesn’t do anything about your collapsing economy when the US and Japan and South Korea suddenly stop doing business with you. Ultimately, that is the worst threat of all. Even if China did successfully conquer Taiwan, its economy is much too dependent on trade with those three nations, and all three would impose major trade sanctions on China for years. The Chinese economy would be wrecked, and likely that would result in the leaders being deposed.
Here’s the analysis I wrote in December of 2003. I stand by it.
Here are problems the Chinese can’t solve:
1. Gaining control of the air over the Strait of Taiwan.
2. Defending convoys against submarine attacks.
3. Defending convoys against air-launched and ground-launched anti-ship missiles.
4. Defending convoys against artillery when close to Taiwan.
5. Landing a sufficiently large force “over the beach” which can capture and hold a port, fully supplied “over the beach” until the port becomes operational. We’re talking several divisions, not several platoons.
6. Preventing American and Taiwanese sea mines from shutting down that port.
For any invasion to succeed, all of those must be dealt with, but right now the Chinese can’t actually deal with any of them. And they are not problems which can be solved by “best and brightest” sitting in an office thinking clever thoughts. They take metal and silicon to solve, and a lot of it.
By the way, it is by no means clear that China actually has enough reasonable shipping to even move the kind of force which would be required and to keep it supplied, even if they didn’t lose any cargo ships at all.
And they definitely don’t have even remotely enough cargo planes to do it by air.
They say that if you want to know what a politician is really thinking, ignore what he says and look at what he does. In the year 2000, China reduced the size of the People’s Liberation Army by 500,000 men. That’s not the kind of thing you do if you have active plans to begin a major war in the immediate future.
SDB, cower in fear is a little too strong. Planning for the worst case scenario is more accurate. A better analogy would be sports. If you plan and train that your opponent is capable of clocking a time of 5:30, but in reality they clock 6:00, in theory you should beat them by half a minute all things being equal.
Instead of looking at all the reasons why a Chinese invasion would fail, the better question would be, if you were them, how would you succeed?
Different personalities I guess. If I were in the US military, I would probably choose every time to be the enemy on exercises.
“Icognito, overestimating an enemy is nearly always a worse mistake than underestimating him.”
See Barbarossa… see Schliffen plan August 1914. Both times the German high command gravely underestimated the ability of the enemy. In WW1, both the allied and German plans were dependent on the enemy doing exactly what they expected them to do. I’m sure your familiar with WW2.
I would guess that more disasters historically were due to underestimation than overestimation. Pearl Harbor, 1870 Franco/Prussian, the list goes on. Almost every time, underestimation gets you killed.
“China reduced the size of the People’s Liberation Army by 500,000 men.” I’m not sure this was a sign the Chinese are not serious about war preparation. The PLA is vastly over-manned. A much smaller force with adequate weapons and training would far more formidable. Looking at “what they do” requires that we look more deeply than at the gross numbers.
Incognito, if I were in charge in China, I wouldn’t make the attempt.
And I don’t think the leadership in China will do so, either.
In 1939 when Hitler retook the Sudetenland, it turns out that if France and the UK had responded militarily, Germany would have been badly defeated. At the time, German military power was very weak, and his generals recommended against the move precisely because they feared what would happen. Hitler correctly determined that the French and British leaders were gutless.
If France and the UK had not overestimated German power, WWII might have been a short, small war.
And your reading of the events of the first few months of WWI is totally incorrect. In fact, if the Schlieffen plan had been followed as written, Germany would have won. But in execution, certain units on the German right flank did not go where the plan said they should, and thus a planned envelopment didn’t succeed.
And why was the plan changed? Because the German commanders in question thought that the French forces were stronger than they actually were, and decided they had to be more conservative.
“In 1939 when Hitler retook the Sudetenland, it turns out that if France and the UK had responded militarily, Germany would have been badly defeated. At the time, German military power was very weak, and his generals recommended against the move precisely because they feared what would happen. Hitler correctly determined that the French and British leaders were gutless.
If France and the UK had not overestimated German power, WWII might have been a short, small war.”
You have your history mixed… Sudetenland was September 1938, the Wehrmacht by then was in full swing. You are refering to the Rhineland, when Hitler marched in troops in 1936. However, for sake of argument, even if the UK/France kicked the Germans out, it would have been a minor flare up because the mindset of UK/France at the time was to avoid war at all cost. Unless they marched to Berlin in 1936 and deposed Hitler, the Rhineland incident would not have altered WW2.
“And your reading of the events of the first few months of WWI is totally incorrect. In fact, if the Schlieffen plan had been followed as written, Germany would have won. But in execution, certain units on the German right flank did not go where the plan said they should, and thus a planned envelopment didn’t succeed.
And why was the plan changed? Because the German commanders in question thought that the French forces were stronger than they actually were, and decided they had to be more conservative.”
Wrong again. Schifflen 1914 failed for a number of underestimations by Moltke & the German high command.
1. They underestimated Russia’s ability to mobilize within day 40. Schifflen called for Paris and France to be beaten prior to Russian mobilization and offense. The Russians marched on East Prussia/Konigsberg before the Germans expected. Hence the need to shift divisions (and Ludendorff) to the Eastern front to fight and win the battle of Tannenberg. They shifted the divisions due to successes on the Schliffen right wing, and reason 2.
2. They underestimated the French’s left wing (German’s right wing), and thus diluted the strength of their right wing. Schliffen’s last words were along the lines of “put everything in the right wing”. The original Schliffen also called for the left wing to hold the line while the right swept down for the envelopment. The Germans underestimated the strength of the French, and tried for a double evelopment. The German left wing could not advance, but siphoned off strenght that could have been used on the right wing.
The French for their part also highly underestimated the Germans. They expected the French left to check the German advance, and for their offense to tear through the weakened German left. This goes back to my original point of both sides’ war plans calling for the other side to do exactly as they planned they would do. Before bashing me about knowing my history, I suggest you brush up on yours. I recommend reading Tuchman’s Guns of August. It’s a classic, not the end all, but a good primer.
Another understimation by the Germans: they expected, and planned on the French to stand their ground and to be enveloped and destroyed. The withdrawal of the French 5th Army saved the French. Otherwise 1914 would have been another 1870.
The web-log “Dawn’s Early Light” has an analysis of the February 2005 USAF-Indian Air Force COPE exercises, where the Americans lost, or “lost,” in air-to-air combat (see also the excellent comments). Bill speculates that the key benefit to the Americans was that this was the first time that US pilots have had the chance to compete against ably-piloted SU-30s…and that the SU-30 is the plane that the PLAAF would rely on to wrest air superiority over the Straights of Taiwan in an invasion scenario.
“China, over the past 5 years, has purchased 60 SU-30s from Russia and has negotiated transfer of technology arrangements with the Russians worth over $2 billion. The US had a golden opportunity to witness dissimilar air combat training with aircraft very similar to what the Chinese would employ against Taiwan. The US used boilerplate tactics to not give away how the pilots of the F-15Cs from their briefing and intel room meetings would really plan a solid defense. They instead focused on watching the capability, studying it, and preparing for not another exercise, but the real deal. Someday soon, those pilots may be facing Chinese SU-30s over the Strait of Taiwan defending a new democracy from a Chinese invasion.”
Smart. Thanks for the link.
Comments are closed.