By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) It would make a lot of sense and greatly reinforce the Pentagon’s deterrence posture in the Pacific if there were immediate moves to forward position as many 5th-generation aircraft as possible such as F-22s and F-35s.
Why? For the same reason the Pentagon needed to send more F-35s to Eastern Europe right away following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the moment, it seem unlikely that either Russia or China could truly challenge the US and NATO in the air.
China is likely aware of this, as its smaller number of J-20s can only launch from land-runways and its carrier-launched J-31 is just arriving. The US Air Force alone, however, has more than 300 F-35s. Even if a J-20 could rival an F-35 in the air, and there are few if any indications that it could, there simply are not enough of them to counter multiple squadrons of networked US F-35s. “Mass matters,” to quote the famous Sun Tzu. Should the US achieve air superiority quickly in some kind of war over Taiwan with China, Chinese amphibious attacks could rapidly be destroyed from the air.
The challenge with this is simply finding a way to get enough of them forward positioned to present a credible and available deterrent against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. An ability to get there fast enough in large enough numbers would seem to be the challenge, as 5th-generation US and allied aircraft would need to be within striking distance of a Chinese amphibious attack on the surface. Taiwan is only 100 miles from mainland China and could quickly be reached by land-launched J-20s or amphibious warfare formations on the surface. On top of this, China has a sizable arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of reaching Taiwan.
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The challenge for the US, then, would seem to reside in finding a way to get enough forward positioned F35s such that China would be forced to pause or simply hold off on an invasion. How might US F-35s get there? Well, Japan has recently launched a very large, multi billion F-35 buy, but the timing of their arrival in large numbers may not yet be known. However, the key part of the Southern Japanese islands are within 500-to-600 miles of Taiwan. There is also the US territory of Guam which is within striking distance of Taiwan, however Australia and most parts of South East Asia may be too far away for F-35s to arrive in time to destroy a Chinese amphibious landing.
The key to available F-35s in the Pacific may be with the US Navy, as it has the ability to forward operate large numbers of warships in the region. This not only includes things like Carrier Strike Groups heavily armed with F-35Cs but also amphibious assault ships. An often lesser recognized element of today’s America-class amphibs is that they can operate and deploy as many as 15 F-35s on a single ship, a dynamic which could help the US mass 5th-gen airpower in the waters near Taiwan quickly. Speed would be of the essence in this kind of scenario, as a Chinese amphibious assault would need to be destroyed from the air before landing ashore on Taiwan. Should Chinese forces become dug-in or entrenched on land in Taiwan, it would seem extremely lengthy, costly and deadly to attempt to “extricate” them from the island.
5th-generation Air power might truly be the only thing capable of stopping a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan, perhaps alongside US attack submarines. The Chinese Navy is already larger than the US in terms of sheer size, however that does not mean it is in any way superior. Nonetheless, the current PLA Navy, now armed with several carriers and a new class of quasi-stealthy destroyers and heavily armed warships, might see itself in an advantageous position should there be a maritime warfare encounter. China’s land force, while less relevant in any kind of rapid attack on Taiwan, is also quite large and formidable. In the air, however, just looking purely at numbers, the US would seem well positioned to achieve air supremacy quickly. The key to stopping a Chinese annexation of Taiwan, it would seem, lies with the F-35. Should the Pentagon be able to forward position enough of them on land and at sea in the Pacific, Chinese advances toward Taiwan could potentially be stopped. Tere mere presence in sufficient numbers might be sufficient to prevent China from actually launching an all out amphibious attack.
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.