Over the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force [PLAAF] of China has diligently worked towards becoming an equal competitor with the United States Air Force. A recent report by the Pentagon underscores the diverse measures through which the Chinese air force has emerged as a formidable contender, and at the very least, a near-peer rival to the USAF.
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In several aspects, the numeric superiority of Chinese air power could potentially inundate the American forces in a hypothetical skirmish over Taiwan.
Chinese military strategists have envisaged a four-day air supremacy campaign over Taiwan, encompassing precision strikes on vital infrastructure points. Additionally, China’s forces have prepared for a pre-emptive strike against the Taiwanese government, all of which form a precursor to a potential invasion of Taiwan.
From a strategic standpoint, China requires an air force that is sufficiently voluminous to overpower Taiwan’s inherent defensive capacities and to safeguard its own territory and invasion forces against probable military retaliation from the United States and its regional allies.
The augmentation efforts by China’s military strategists have focused not only on increasing their aircraft inventory but also on enhancing their technological capabilities. They have developed an array of what they refer to as Fifth-Generation fighter aircraft to compete with America’s F-22 Raptor and F-35. However, many technology commentators argue that China’s Fifth-Generation aircraft lack the sophistication or stealth features of their American counterparts.
This counter-view is largely extraneous, as the key factor for China is not absolute perfection in their defense equipment but rather achieving an adequate level of capability—which they arguably have.
The Maoist doctrine of “the quantity has its own quality” could be applied in this context, converging with the age-old adage that “geography is destiny”. China’s potential targets—ranging from northern India and the South or East China Seas to Taiwan—are all proximate to China’s own geographical boundaries.
Hence, the U.S. military is compelled to deploy forces across extensive distances, heavily leaning on regional allies for basing and refueling rights to position its military proximate to China’s conflict zones. Beijing reaps the benefits synonymous with a home-field advantage over America, supplemented by immense industrial capacities able to produce warplanes in prodigious quantities.
Ironically, the technological inferiority of China’s planes morphs into an asset for the country. Their aircraft can be replaced at a far superior rate and with more efficiency than the United States can manage to deploy, repair, and replenish its fleet of warplanes.
The F-22 Raptor serves as an illustrative example here. The Pentagon’s war-game scenarios consistently indicate that even a modest number of Raptors can decisively sway a prospective engagement with Chinese forces in America’s favor.
However, the supply of these warplanes is limited. Despite the increased capability these planes offer compared to previous generations, confronted with significantly greater numbers of Chinese fighters, they will be overwhelmed. Compounding matters, China’s arsenal of stealth warplanes is projected to exceed that of America.
The F-35, earmarked by the U.S. military as the preferred substitute for the aging fourth-generation warplane fleet, presents its own set of challenges.
Firstly, detailed schematics of this warplane were purloined by China as far back as 2005, during a cyber operation christened Titan Rain. This affords China ample time to mimic the warplane and develop countermeasures. Secondly, the F-35 falls short in air-to-air combat when pitted against the F-22.
Nevertheless, the production run of the F-22 was prematurely terminated by the Obama administration in 2009, citing cost-saving objectives. Consequently, the maximum quota of F-22s the U.S. air fleet can count on is frozen until the much-anticipated sixth-generation warplane becomes operational in approximately a decade.
Thirdly, the F-35 is a substantially costly aircraft to manufacture and maintain compared to most Chinese counterparts. If aircraft casualties exceed America’s limited industrial capacity to replace them during wartime, strategic vulnerabilities will emerge within the American defense ecosystem.
Add to these issues the overarching problem that has incessantly burdened America in the post-World War II geopolitical landscape. While America views itself as a global superpower—holding pervasive interests in almost all world regions, China’s strategic objectives remain tethered to its own territory. This implies any potential war with the West would arguably take place closer to Chinese soil.
Therefore, China can significantly augment its regional forces to deliver a lethal blow against the scattered, overextended, and diluted international U.S. forces.
Various imbalances and inefficiencies are currently undermining the robustness of the United States military supply chain. In a noteworthy incident, the president of a prominent American defense contractor, Raytheon, publicly admonished U.S. policymakers last summer, warning of the dangers of instigating a conflict with China.
This concern stems from the fact a significant portion of America’s defense supply chain is reliant on China. Skepticism arises when considering whether Beijing would permit the U.S. military unimpeded access to wartime supplies if a conflict occurs with China. It might appear absurd to expect such cooperation. Owing to this dependency, it could be argued that China holds a strategic advantage over the United States in this regard.
In contrast, China appears to be less vulnerable to these issues. It has strategically fortified its society and economy against potential Western economic sanctions and has strengthened ties with neighboring powers like Russia to safeguard its industrial base from the impacts of any confrontation with the West.
While China also has its set of vulnerabilities, when evaluating the capacity of China’s extensive air fleet and the proximity to its targets, a possible outcome could be China overpowering the U.S. alliance in an air war over Taiwan. Should America lose air dominance over Taiwan, China’s invasion could potentially proceed unimpeded, which would isolate Taiwan from its Western allies for the duration of the invasion. This scenario could occur unless America decided to significantly escalate the situation with China, which seems unlikely at present.
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