In many of my posts on China, their emerging hardware and their military strategy in the region as a whole, I have discussed some “unconventional” tactics that the Chinese military has developed in an attempt to neuter America’s qualitative military edge. For years I have mentioned that China has had a program running for over a decade that converts surplus PLAAF fighters into rudimentary drones. Based primarily on the J-6 (MiG-19 clone) J-7 (MiG-21 clone) platforms, these systems may be superficially reminiscent of America’s QF-X series of full scale aerial targets (FSATs) that have been key in developing America’s anti-aircraft and air to air missile technologies since the dawn of their existence, but the face value similarities is where I believe this comparison ends. As I have reiterated for some time, this capability is not about turning old fighters into UCAVs or even primarily full scale aerial targets for that matter, it is about deflating a potential enemy’s qualitative advantage vis-a-vis a quantitative advantage. In other words, deploying into an air combat environment a couple hundred unmanned fighter jets, some possibly packing rudimentary electronic warfare gear and/or drop tanks full of high explosives, combined with the hundreds of land and sea based cruise missiles and fighter aircraft, will undoubtedly overwhelm a technologically superior force’s ability not only defend their interests in the region, and in Taiwan’s case, even their own homeland…

If such a tactic were employed, how fast would Taiwan’s air to air missile stocks run dry, even assuming that their fighter aircraft survived such an onslaught in the first place? The answer is very fast. Additionally, with so many contacts to sort and engage at one time, it allows for modern Chinese fighters to “leak through” with the masses and take out overwhelmed air defense assets with relative ease. An F-16 can theoretically carry six air to air missiles at a time, four AIM-120s and two AIM-9s. This does not give Taiwan’s main air defense fighter force that many shots against such a varied and voluminousness attack.

In total, Taiwan has about 350 fighters of varying capabilities (F-16A/B, FCK-1C/D/MLU, Mirage-2000-5, F-5E/F). Only a portion of these aircraft can be in the air at any given time, and their home airfields and known dispersed operating areas (long stretches of highway etc) will be at the very top of China’s targeting list. In other words, many of the jets that actually make it into the air once an attack has begun may not be returning to the air base from which they launched, and even if they found an operational refueling and rearming point what would the sustained sortie rates look like under such austere operating conditions? You can see how this picture is darkening as I continue. China will go big if they attempt to take back Taiwan or not go at all. Do not expect a set piece air battle during such a conflict. Quite the contrary, expect and overwhelming barrage of offensive weaponry and decoys mixed with plenty of guile.

There is a cunning genius to China’s order of battle when it comes to an aerial attack on Taiwan, just overwhelm Taiwanese air defenses with an onslaught of hundreds of aerial targets,  drones, cruise missiles, and fighters, and there is a good chance that their air force that remains after such an attack is only a shadow of its previous operational self. Such a strategy also fits into China’s emerging low observable fighter programs very well. If you overwhelm an air defense system and its associated fighter aircraft with hundreds of juicy targets, it is easier to use your low signature advanced platforms to sneak by unscathed to take them out.

China’s creative form of fighter aircraft recycling gives the PLAAF a capability that is alarmingly tailored toward a conflict over Taiwan, but that is not to say that is capability cannot be used against other potential foes, such as a US carrier strike group operating within a few hundred miles of its coast. A massive barrage of anti-ship cruise missiles, air launched (see my recent piece on China and the TU-22), sea launched and shore launched, as well as a large salvo of full-scale drones, not to mention their sprouting DF-21D antiship ballistic missile system, could overwhelm a Carrier Strike Group’s elaborate layered defenses. In other words,  when it comes to US expeditionary combat capability off China’s shores, China’s unmanned fighter drone program could be used in itself as yet another component of their ever evolving anti-access strategy. In essence, this capability, along with many others, could keep US Carrier power out of the fight in a battle over Taiwan as they would have to send combat aircraft into an extremely volatile environment to strike targets, or even provide air defense capability, at the edge of their combat radius. Additionally, these otherwise valueless converted drones are not just decoys, they also serve a nasty offensive purpose, they are rudimentary cruise missiles. When their drop tanks are filled with napalm and/or strapped with high explosive material they become a modern-day version of the first cruise missile of all time, the Nazi V1. Such a weapon does not need an advanced satellite navigation or over the horizon communications system, it just needs a fairly simple autopilot that can get it to a target measured in thousands of feet instead of tens of feet, like an airbase for instance. If it strikes anything of value great, if it falls into the sea great, as it has already served its primary purpose, acting as a full-scale decoy that helped Chinese cruise missiles make it to their targets unscathed and allowed Chinese fighters to neuter an overwhelmed Taiwanese fighter force.

As we have discussed before, America’s silver bullet F-22 force would also be largely incapable of making a large impact in the air combat arena if such a conflict arises. The Raptor’s lack of range, the vulnerability of close proximity basing and tanker aircraft, and their limited weapons storage would make them all but a token force in this scenario  Bases like Kadena, on the Japanese island of Okinawa, could be kept out of the fight as host nations would fear a ballistic missile barrage in retaliation. This could potentially push our fighter aircraft back to Guam. I will refer once again back to a recent RAND report on China’s rising power in relation to America’s ability to project power in the region. Paraphrasing generally: If about 75 F-22s were sent to Guam, a base outside the immediate striking range of Chinese short and medium range ballistic and cruise missiles, only four Raptors could be continuously on station over the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. Keep in mind these aircraft also need a very vulnerable tanker within a couple hundred miles to keep them flush with gas as they refuel almost hourly, and a tanker “bridge” would have to be put in place to get them from Guam to the target area and back. Four F-22s equates to 24 beyond visual range air to air missiles. Keeping what we just discussed in this piece in mind, do the math and see for yourself how little of an effect such a force would have against a full force Chinese offensive on Taiwan. Incidentally the same can be said for the F-35A, or really all of America’s runway dependent fighter force.

China’s retired fighter to drone conversion program is just one more example of their brilliant multi-faceted strategy to deny America and Taiwan the ability to bring their most capable weapon systems to bear in a combined fashion. A never-ending game of one-sided Jiu Jitsu, when it comes to weapon system procurement, China has pulled when America and our allies have pushed, and pushed when we have pulled. Although military technology parity is potentially a very long-term goal for the Chinese military, in the mean time it is clear that they have and are continuing to develop complex low density and breathtakingly simple high density weapon systems that are tailored to overcome a technologically superior enemy via denying proximity or by presenting an overwhelming quantitative advantage. In the end, I believe that China is capable of deploying operational “drone swarms” long before America, albeit of vastly lower complexity and questionable re-usability…


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  1. Jeff Krob says:

    A few things to keep in mind. Is it presumed the drones are flying a pre-programmed flight path to a specific target? Is it presumed they are all launched from one airfield in China? If these are so, I can’t see where an attack would be in a swarm-type fashion.
    1)The airfield can only launch a few at a time so I would think they would fly in a long line, one after the other (which is easier to defend against) & not in a ‘flock’ or swarm.
    2)If flying by autopilot, they would not be able to take evasive action to avoid the defenses which means the defending aircraft could use their guns as well.
    3)One would hope both their Navies & our Navy would be patrolling in the straits and could help defend with their own surface-to-air missiles, guns, etc.

    This is all presuming that the attack is only the drones with no other manned aircraft &/or ships participating from China to distract the defenses.


  2. Larry says:

    This seems an odd place to be flying drones. If there is a ground control element, it would need to be in the mountains somewhere to maintain line of sight. Also, I’d hate to be the people living at that runway. Drones have a tendency to auger in ever once in a while.

    I think its feasible to do swarming (formation flying). If there’s an uplink, then it’s a no brainer. If it’s an autopilot only scenario, you’d need to adjust the routes and speed to get all of them to meet up at a rally point. Once they got to the merge, yes, maneuvering would be a problem. My answer would be to tie a radar warning receiver to the autopilot. Once it goes off, start a series of timed, quasi-random maneuvers. Sure, they may run into each other, but there are opportunities in confusion. Have each drone carry as much chaff and flares as possible. Also, have some of them go low and high towards a high value target to get the defense really pumped up and distracted. I’m convinced this would be effective against anything we could muster, including the Navy.

  3. Sanem says:

    A superb piece, thank you for this.

    For years now I’ve been argumenting the possibility of China converting its outdated fighters in QF-X type aircraft, with little other fuction than to swarm Taiwanese (or USN) defences. This could be done relatively cheap, and with little technical requirements:
    - basic take off system, alternatively a landing system. radio guided aircraft have been succesfully launched and landed since WWII, so launching and even landing these Migs would be relatively easy to do. with some radio beacons you could even automate the process by a huge degree at again a relatively low cost
    - auto-pilot, been around for ages
    - maybe a basic in flight guidance system to steer aircraft if necessairy. land based radio beacons could be used to help the aircraft stay on course, and drop their weapons/napalm fuel tanks with pin point accuracy, updating the target data as the situation develops (air base destroyed, order the next series to fly to target B and drop at point 1, 2 and 3). very basic stuff
    - in every group you put a more advanced model, equiped with varying degrees of superior equipment, possibly even manned. this aircraft controls the group, uses defensive measures, even counter-attacks any defending aircraft, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, giving the drone squadron an unexpected ability
    - mix in squadrons of more advanced jets. at range Allied radars will be unable to distinguish the groups, confusing them on exact enemy strength and movement. for example you couldn’t send in fighters after a group, because you might be wasting your valuable long range missiles on drones, and getting close to get a visual will result in Allied aircraft being shot at by a large number of missiles
    - if you do engage the manned Chinese jets with missiles, these would probably just fly behind the drones, using them as shields
    - and worst of all you have Chinese stealth jets using all this action as a smoke screen to sneak past the enemy lines, where a few well placed missiles, anti-ship weapons and ground attack bombs will easily inflict massive damage against key enemy targets like AWACS, tankers, radar stations and even aircraft carriers

    on top of all this you have the complete and utter chaos. US tactics are mostly based around long range fights, F-22 pilots for one train for this because it is the most effective strategy. but in a full scale air war involving hundreds of aircraft, F-22′s will get swarmed from all sides, even a few cannon hits are likely to take them out. and that’s assuming you don’t have those Chinese stealth fighters sitting around, waiting for them to reveal themselves. until they fire their 8 missiles and are then forced to fly back to Guam, and their tanker was probably shot down, so they’ll go down anyway

    China is indeed winning this cold war with the US, letting the US bankrupt itself on silver bullets like the F-22 and F-35 desaster, while investing steadily and surely in relatively cheap technology that isn’t ground breaking but will give them enough of an edge to do much greater damage relative to the investment

    not that all of this matters, because China has no interest in an open conflict. while good in the short run, it’ll reveal its tactics to the world, and also solidify opposition, in the way Pearl Harbour was a succesful battle for the Japanese but eventually cost them the war
    China will move into a position where an attack on Taiwan will not provoke a serious reaction, in the same way that Hitler annexed most neighbouring countries. you don’t invade Poland unless you’re willing to invade England

  4. nico says:

    I saw recently on a Chinese defense site (will have to dig it up) that J6 production was still ongoing until very recently, even though they pretty much aren’t in service anymore. I thought it was odd and not very believable since J6 has been pretty much replaced by now with newer J10s and J11s, so I didn’t think much of it at the time. But if you are right, using J6 as a UAV makes a lot of sense. It is available in vast numbers, very cheap, lots of spare parts, maintenance by conscripts should be really easy, no major problems are likely to crop up now since it has been in service forever, no strategic materials needed, production is still “hot” and since it is such a old design from a different era, quality doesn’t really matter compared to a J11 or future J20… would make for a very useful FAST or kind of a Chinese MALD.

  5. Brad says:

    I’m wondering if procurement of a relatively cheap system like the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system might make a good countermeasure to such an attack. I believe the Israeli missiles have a range of about 45 miles and cost somewhere between $35,000 – $50,000 each. I’m pretty sure modern radar systems on the AWACS and Aegis equipped ships would be able to differentiate between between drones, cruise missiles and manned Chinese attack/fighter aircraft. This would permit Taiwan and the U.S. to discriminate on targeting, sending fighters and SM-2/Patriots at targets which pose the most significant threat. The Iron Dome system would be used against drones which appear to threaten populated areas or areas of military importance.

    I think the greater threat still remains from the combination of the Tu-22M/KH-32 and the DF-21D. These threats may have the capability to overwhelm defenses, just as the Soviets had planned to do against the US Navy.

  6. adrian says:

    The iron dome solution seems immediately viable but once again this has the very real possibility of playing into the chinese jiu-jitsu as the author previously mentioned. The iron dome is a very advanced technological solution requiring an exorbitant amount of resources to execute and maintain while china on the other hand retrofits an already obsolete or aging air force into a formidable one. The economics of military warfare comes to mind in this instance, can the US develop solutions that are persistently increasing in cost as opposed to the chinese economic model of warfare where it develops very cheap solutions for a problem? While the effective output of these drones can still be put to question, they are still winning the numbers game.

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