Monday, September 02, 2013

As Long As They Don't Turn

Could Russian T-50s and Chinese J-20s smash up our air power?

That's what this article says, if they are equipped with long-range air-to-air missiles:

The T-50 ... is apparently being designed to blast through defenses in a fairly straight line, relying on front-only stealth features, high altitude, sustained speed and long range to swiftly fire long-reaching missiles at vulnerable targets deep behind enemy lines—without the help of aerial tankers, of which Russia possesses few.

That's interesting. Our F-35s and F-22s (and earlier F-117s) have all-around stealth. I did not know that the still-in-development Russian and Chinese planes are front-only stealth planes.

The author says that they would be built in small numbers to go after our AWACS and other soft support planes, thus crippling our Air Force (and Navy/Marine air, I should add). The author cites a 2008 RAND study that showed F-22s getting swamped by Chinese Su-27s in a Taiwan scenario.

I noted the study about the war game back in 2008. Let me just say that the study relied on the Chinese striking our air bases (on Okinawa, I believe) and knocking out all but 6 F-22s that proceeded to shoot down 48 non-stealthy Su-27s only to see the Chinese survivors fly on and shoot down tankers and other soft targets. That's not a condemnation of our planes but of geography and ground defenses.

The report says, among other things, that we need to improve passive defenses at our air bases. That would mean hardened aircraft shelters and dispersal. And rapid runway repair, I assume. We should also improve anti-aircraft and anti-missile forces. In the not-so-recent past, Chinese air power was ancient and had no ability to strike these bases.

And dispersing aircraft away from Okinawa would help. We are improving Guam and regaining access to bases in the Philippines, so we have that.

Plus, to add something that the RAND study didn't need to look at, if we add more radars we make it less likely that the Chinese and Russian planes can find an attack corridor that allows them to only face our radar from their stealthy front.

The study also ignores the political fall-out of launching a preemptive strike on our air bases in Japanese territory as a prelude to attacking Taiwan. While that might make sense in some military terms, China's best bet to conquer Taiwan is to delay our intervention while China overwhelms Taiwan.

If China attacks our bases quickly, China has made our decision to intervene for us. As we watch President Obama struggle with intervention in Syria, can anyone doubt that a debate to intervene against China over Taiwan would be any less agonizingly slow if China avoids our forces?

And Japan, too, avoids any constitutional issues if they are attacked and can join in the fight quickly.

Finally, on the equipment front, although our F-22s are few we will have many F-35s. The Russians and Chinese may plan to make do with frontal stealth only, but we do have all-around stealth. Maybe their charge of the lightly stealthed brigade will work. Maybe not.

And we already have a frontal-only stealth plane if we choose to buy it.

The Navy has a cheaper alternative, too, with a more stealthy Super Hornet which increases the frontal stealth capabilities.

We also know how to make long-range anti-aircraft missiles since we pioneered the Phoenix for our retired Navy F-14s.

I'm worried in general about China's increased ability to project power into the Pacific (and past our allies close to China, making it harder to support them), and the J-20 is just one part of that worry. Russia I don't worry about, and if they sell their T-50 to a smaller hostile power, they'd likely be ineffective in changing the outcome against our Air Force and Navy air power--even if they manage to give us a bloody nose in the process.

So I don't think these Chinese and Russian planes are silver bullets that negate our air power.

UPDATE: Funny enough, but Tom Clancy's 3-decade old Red Storm Rising had us using our still-mysterious F-117 (when it seemed to be a fighter rather than a light bomber) to sneak into Warsaw Pact air space to take out Russia's version of AWACS in order to pave the way for NATO fighters to shoot up Soviet planes at the outset of the war.