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…