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A recently released Pentagon report says Chinese air defense systems present a substantial and growing threat to the U.S. and allies in the region. The threat is extremely substantial in part because China operates both Russian-built and indigenously produced systems capable of tracking and attacking enemy aircraft.
Chinese Air Defense Systems
The technological sophistication of these systems, and the extent to which they can be upgraded, would naturally make it quite difficult for U.S. or allied countries to establish air supremacy over China in any kind of large-scale engagement.
The Pentagon’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” explains that China’s air defenses consist of Russian built S-300s and S-400 Surface to Air Missiles. These Russian systems are reported to be among the best and most effective in the world, and they are quite upgradeable.
The most current S-400s, and emerging Russian S-500s are increasingly networked to one another, enabled by high-speed computer processing and capable of precise, long-range threat detection. These systems have much greater range and sensitivity than previous systems. However, an ability to detect that an aircraft is merely “there,” or “in the sky” above does not mean that the air defense radar system can establish a continuous “track” and actually succeed in “hitting,” “engaging” or destroying an aircraft.
Also, China’s air defense threat is by no means restricted to these Russian-built systems, as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force supplements them with Chinese-made systems. China operates its domestically produced HQ-9 Surface to Air Missiles and is also developing indigenous HQ-19 systems expected to bring a ballistic missile defense capability, the Pentagon report says.
What this means for any potential air attack over mainland China is that it will need to operate at higher altitudes to stay less detectable to air defenses, use unmanned systems to reduce risk to pilots searching targets or use long-range land, air or ship fired ballistic and cruise missiles to destroy Chinese air defenses from safer stand-off ranges without placing manned aircraft in the line of fire.
Russian media has gone so far as to say their systems are capable of tracking and destroying stealth aircraft, a claim that has yet to be truly verified. Nonetheless, these air defenses are known to be capable of presenting serious problems and challenges for some advanced U.S. aircraft, including some stealth platforms. What this means is that a U.S. led air-campaign over China would prove quite difficult.
Even if the U.S. Air Force was able to overwhelm or destroy the PLA Air Force, aircraft would still face serious risk from highly-dangerous and precise Chinese air defenses.
This may be why a strong maritime presence would undoubtedly be needed to support an offensive campaign. Should the location of air defenses be known or found by US surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence technologies, then long-range precision strike weapons such as Tomahawk cruise missiles could be fired from ships or submarines to destroy Chinese air defenses in advance of any kind of air attack.
This might improve prospects for success.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.