Over the past two decades, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force [PLAAF] has worked diligently to become an equal competitor with the United States Air Force. A recent Pentagon report highlights the various measures through which the Chinese Air Force has become a formidable contender and, at the very least, a close rival to the USAF.
In several respects, the numerical superiority of Chinese air power could swamp US forces in a hypothetical skirmish over Taiwan.
Chinese military strategists have planned a four-day air supremacy campaign over Taiwan, which would encompass precision strikes on vital infrastructure points. In addition, Chinese forces have prepared for a pre-emptive attack against the Taiwanese government, all in advance of a possible invasion of Taiwan.
Strategically, China needs an air force large enough to overcome Taiwan’s inherent defensive capabilities and safeguard its own territory and invasion forces against likely military retaliation from the United States and its regional allies.
Chinese military strategists’ surge efforts have focused not only on increasing their aircraft inventory but also on improving their technological capabilities. They have developed what they call fifth-generation fighter jets to compete with the American F-22 Raptor and F-35.
However, many technology commentators maintain that Chinese fifth-generation aircraft lack the sophistication or stealth features of their American counterparts.
This counter-opinion is largely unrelated, as the key factor for China is not the absolute perfection of its defense equipment but rather achieving an adequate level of capability, which it arguably has.
The Maoist doctrine of “quantity has its own quality” could be applied in this context, converging with the old saying that “geography is destiny.” China’s potential targets – from northern India and the South or East China Seas to Taiwan – are all close to China’s own geographical borders.
Hence, the US military is forced to deploy forces over long distances, relying heavily on regional allies for basing and resupply rights in order to position its armed forces close to China’s conflict zones. Beijing benefits from the advantage of having its own playing field against the United States, complemented by an immense industrial capacity capable of producing warplanes in prodigious quantities.
Ironically, the technological inferiority of Chinese aircraft has become an advantage for the country. Their aircraft can be replaced at a much faster rate and more efficiently than the United States can deploy, repair and replenish their fleet of warplanes.
The F-22 Raptor is an illustrative example. The Pentagon’s war scenarios consistently indicate that even a few Raptors can decisively tilt a potential confrontation with Chinese forces in the United States’ favor.
However, the supply of these warplanes is limited. Despite these aircraft’s increased capability compared to previous generations, they will be overwhelmed if they face significantly more Chinese fighters. To further complicate matters, China’s arsenal of stealth fighter jets is expected to surpass the American one.
The F-35, designated by the US military as the preferred replacement for the aging fleet of fourth-generation warplanes, presents its own set of challenges.
First, the detailed schematics of this warplane were stolen by China in 2005 during a cyber operation dubbed Titan Rain. This gives China enough time to imitate the plan and develop countermeasures. Second, the F-35 is inferior to the F-22 in air-to-air combat.
However, the Obama administration prematurely ended F-22 production in 2009, citing cost-saving goals. Consequently, the maximum quota of F-22s that the US air fleet can count on is frozen until the long-awaited sixth-generation warplane becomes operational in about a decade.
Third, the F-35 is substantially more expensive to manufacture and maintain than most of its Chinese counterparts. If aircraft casualties exceed the limited US industrial capacity to replace them in wartime, strategic vulnerabilities will emerge in the US defense ecosystem.
To these issues, we must add the general problem that has incessantly weighed down the United States in the post-World War II geopolitical landscape. While the United States considers itself a global superpower with omnipresent interests in almost all regions of the world, China’s strategic objectives remain limited to its own territory. This implies that any potential war with the West could take place closer to Chinese soil.
Therefore, China can significantly increase its regional forces to deal a lethal blow to the scattered, overextended and diluted US international forces.
Various imbalances and inefficiencies are currently undermining the strength of the US military supply chain. In a notable incident, the president of a prominent US defense contractor, Raytheon, publicly admonished US policymakers last summer and warned them of the dangers of instigating a conflict with China.
This concern stems from the fact that a significant portion of the US defense supply chain depends on China. Skepticism arises when considering whether Beijing would allow the US military unimpeded access to war supplies if a conflict with China were to occur. It might seem absurd to expect such cooperation. Because of this dependence, it could be argued that China possesses a strategic advantage over the United States in this regard.
In contrast, China appears to be less vulnerable to these issues. It has strategically strengthened its society and economy in the face of possible Western economic sanctions. It has strengthened ties with neighboring powers such as Russia to safeguard its industrial base from the repercussions of any confrontation with the West.
Although China also has its set of vulnerabilities, when assessing the capabilities of China’s extensive air fleet and proximity to its targets, one possible outcome could be China prevailing over the US alliance in an air war over Taiwan. If the United States were to lose air dominance over Taiwan, the Chinese invasion could proceed unhindered, isolating Taiwan from its Western allies for the duration of the invasion. This scenario could occur unless the United States decided to escalate the situation with China, which is unlikely significantly.