Can China Stop U.S. Airpower?

Soaring OVER THE PACIFIC OCEAN -- A B-1B Lance...

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Access Challenges and Implications for Airpower in the Western Pacific
by Eric Stephen Gons
Pardee Rand Graduate School
May 2010
266pp.

As China’s military plans against the possibility of a face-off with the United States, the nation’s generals understand that even with recent advances in the quality of Chinese training and equipment, the PLA is not yet ready to go head-to-head with the U.S. military, even in a limited scenario. As a result, China has been developing a warfighting doctrine based on denying U.S. air and naval forces access to the PRC and areas contiguous to its frontiers.

In a readable doctoral dissertation for the RAND Pardee Graduate School, Eric Gons works through whether this is a viable strategy for the PLA (it is), whether the PLA has the weapons and capabilities to implement it (it does), and whether the U.S., and in particular the U.S. Air Force, can operate effectively against that threat. And that is where things get sticky.

Diving into regional politics, geography, weapons capabilities, and training, Gons notes that if the USAF had to fight China in the Western Pacific, it would go in with highly capable aircraft that are totally unsuited for such a conflict. One insightful conclusion about the mix of aircraft the USAF would bring to the fight will certainly sit badly in the laps of Air Force generals:

The current USAF inventory was designed and optimized for European operations, where basing was close to the likely area of conflict. The Pacific theater, especially in light of anti-access threats, is very different.

Even assuming the absolute superiority of US aircraft on a head-to-head basis, Gons notes, the best efforts of the U.S. military could not sustain air superiority over Taiwan, for example, for very long.

As easy as it would be to dismiss Gons as a tool for the Air Force to cage more budget from Congress, one could only do so by ignoring the gentle yet deft excoriation of Air Force doctrine and force structure that Goss administers in his work. The USAF has used the questionable threat of a fight with China over Taiwan to justify spending on a force largely unsuited to that very task. The result is frightening. An examination of the US options mean that any conflict over Taiwan would be uncontainable: it would, by necessity, expand into a much wider war.

Gons calls for a paradigm shift in thinking, but he stops short of explaining what that shift should be. If the U.S. is serious about defending Taiwan against a PLA attack, however, the Department of the Air Force clearly needs a house-cleaning even more serious that the one it got from former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The USAF needs to become more Asia-facing, more flexible, more expeditionary, and a lot cheaper. Otherwise it is of no use to the nation in a Pacific century.

For their part, the PLA should be quite pleased with this report. It underscores that since the Taiwan Straits crisis in 1996, the PLA has shifted its ponderous force and thinking far enough all but hog-tie the world’s most powerful military in the Western Pacific.

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