I recently read the RAND analysis on possible encounters between China and Taiwan/USA in 2020. You can find it here. I have to say that after some initial prejudice toward their analysis, I became fairly impressed by the different scenarios they talked about. I think one must look at this as a good starting point rather than a realistic study. I’ve always found Taiwan scenario to be too complicated to be discussed on a military forum, so I try not to get into such debate. So the following is an attempt to ask more questions, trying to think of more possibilities rather than answering what is and is not going to be successful.
I think an interesting part that they went over are the number of air bases available to both side in this scenario. The important part is pointing out that Kadena is basically the only USAF base close enough to Taiwan strait and Anderson is the only other base close to there. It also showed the possible and the number of other possible air bases available to America in the area from Japan and South Korea + give some thoughts into areas that would be considered safe for the US carrier and would that would mean to this scenario. So, I think the important questions they raised include the following:
1. Can China take Kadena out of the picture with missile strike and if so how long can they keep it out of commission? In order to answer this question, I would have to know the kind of air defense available at the beginning of the conflict (assuming that USN cannot get there in time to support with its Aegis umbrella). If it is taken out, how fast can it be repaired? If it’s repaired, how fast can it be re-supplied? If does have USN protection after being repaired/re-supplied, will it be taken out again by further strikes of ballistic missile, KD-88s and PGMs? So basically, will USAF be able keep this air base open and maintain adequate sortie rate? Even if this can be accomplished, will USAF risk placing any advanced units there?
2. In any Taiwan/China scenario, with South Korea and/or Japan get involved? I think South Korea would unlikely be involved, but will Japan help out Taiwan by sending its navy? Or will it let USAF use its air bases? I certainly the latter case is likely, because Japan has been very vocal about its commitment to USA alliance and its problems with China. There will obviously be some logistical issues of USAF using Japanese bases, so the question would be how long it would take for these bases to be useful? And if Japan allows its bases to be used by USA, will China also be targeting those bases? And if China does target those bases, we are looking at a much larger conflict.
3. The Andersen air base is the only other air base that’s within operational range of Taiwan strait. Will this air base remain unscathed in possible conflicts. One thing that has been brought up is that we will likely see B-2 going into Chinese territory to attack Chinese air bases and SAM sites. On the flip side, what about Chinese bombers carrying LACMs against Andersen air base? It is certainly within the range of a H-6K carrying 6 long range LACMs. The report states that 34 missiles would in effect cripple Kadena air base? How many tomahawk LACMs would put Andersen out of commission? And even if Andersen is not taken out, can they significantly reduce the number of sorties launched from there? Similar to point 1, would the risk of getting hit in the hangar prevent USAF from placing a valued asset like F-22 there?
4. What about air bases in China? It’s certainly inconceivable that USAF would leave these air bases and SAMs alone in any kind of war scenario. I could imagine that B-2s would be sent in to hit bases that are close to Taiwan and also field elite units. And when USN carrier groups get in there, you can guarantee that many Tomahawk missiles will be sent to Chinese SAMs, GCI sites, long range radar stations and air bases to reduce PLAAF’s readiness and sorties. Even if we believe in the invincibility of B-2 and conjecture it can come, drop off the bombs and leave unscathed, how many of its bombs/missiles and Tomahawks from USN ships will not be intercepted? If the air bases get damaged, oil depots get hit, how long will it take for these bases to be fixed and re-supplied? And if China’s inland bases are hit, what kind of retaliation can be expected? One would imagine all US military bases in surrounding regions could possibly be targeted. The most vulnerable one would be in Afghanistan due to the number of troops there and relatively lack of air defense against terrain hugging cruise missiles. Consider that Chinese missiles can Afghanistan flying through Kashmir and Pakistan, I don’t think it would get any serious objections to such an attack And if we consider Iraq, it is another possible hit location, although the Chinese missiles might not have the range to go that far.
5. What about the general logistics for PLA? We can assume that USAF and USN would not have any problem with all of its experiences recently. Can PLA keep all of its bases supplied? More importantly, can it ensure that its fighters will get jet fuel needed in an extended conflict? With USN guaranteed of choking China’s supply lines (either by itself or through its allies), how long can China keep on going? It has 30 days of strategic supply right now. Even if we assume increased domestic production + increased supply from Russia and Iran in the event of a war, how long can it really last? It’s no wonder that Chinese plans all involve quick victory over Taiwan.
The next question is what kind of forces will be available on both side. Seeing how there will be a maximum of 183 F-22s overall, it will hard to see USAF being able to commit more than 4 squadrons (96 aircrafts) in the theatre (Andersen and Kadena air bases). And let’s use the number 72 + 90 = 162 F-35A from Kadena and Japan air bases (I think we can rule out F-35A from Andersen due to its range). So, I’m guessing we will see a maximum of 96 F-22s and 160 F-35s at the disposal of USAF. If we take Kadena totally out of the picture, we might be looking at 48 F-22s and 72 F-35As. Remember, these are just hypothetical number I’m throwing out, without actually knowing the full capacity of the two air bases and also the number of tankers supporting them. If we use the commonly accepted figure of 2 USN Carrier groups in action and the air wing as described by Galrahn here:
24 super hornets, 24 hornets, 4 EA-6B, 4 E-2C, 6 SH-60.
Replacing them with planes we are likely to see in 2020, we will likely see a total of:
48 JSF, 48 super hornets, 8 E-2D, 8-12 EA-18G? and 12 SH-60
USAF/USN will also be supported by possibly 200 F-16s + a good number of M2Ks and IDF from ROCAF. The problem with Taiwan is the same with Kadena air base and Chinese air bases. Taiwan will likely see a steady bombardment from DF-11/15s, LACMs, WS-2, ASM and PGMs in the initial part of the conflict. The aim is obviously to take out the SAM sites, air bases and radar/communication sites. At this point, it’s hard to say how this would affect ROCAF’s sortie rate. I don’t really have any data on the strategic jet fuel supply for Taiwan, the pace of repair work, the ability to keep foreign planes flying during high intensity situations or alternative lift-off options (flying off highways?). So, it’s really hard to say how much ROCAF will be able to help US in the air after the first couple of days.
As for PLA, it’s just as cloudy what kind of forces it will have at that time. One thing I can say is that RAND’s vision of PLA fighters is really off base. I cannot imagine under the current scenario that Chinese flankers will be like su-35, but rather something domestic (as I have talked about in the past). And even aside from that, one would imagine that in 2020, PLAAF will be a force with mainly J-10 of different variants, about 300 JH-7 series fighters, about 300-400 flankers of different variants and a small number of 5th generation fighters. And one can imagine that plenty of buffer planes in the mode of JF-17 and J-8F in action also. We’ve seen from RAND example of all the air bases around Taiwan. We certainly can’t expect all of their fighters to be used in this theatre. We also can expect a portion of the air bases to be out of commission from US missile strikes. Knowing that, it’s also hard to know which air bases are equipped to handle the more “advanced” fighters. For example, would an air base usually accommodating JF-17 be able to handle J-10B fighters operating from there? How well would they handle small non-military air strips? If their air base is destroyed or too far away, would they be able to use remote civilian air strips? And for the elite units that are stationed further away from Taiwan, they would need tankers to get there. At the moment, China only has a limited number of H-6U and not much experience with them. In 12 years, how much would the Chinese refueling capability increase and how would that affect the number of sorties performed by these units? There are far too many unknowns to figure out the amount of sorties generated by PLAAF over Taiwan. And I don’t expect each sortie to have the same airplanes. That will obviously change with different missions.
Also, the aerial warfare is only part of the overall battle. With the numerical advantage of ROC army over the invading PLA, one could argue that PLA would need absolute air dominance over all of its missions. And it would need to maintain air supremacy to accomplish any of its missions. In that case, all USAF would need is to prevent that to keep PLA from accomplishing its goals. However, that’s outside of the scope of this discussion and I am really not knowledgeable enough to go there. So, this piece is just to raise some interesting questions on the RAND analysis.