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Video Above: US Congressman: Navy Needs Drones, Light Amphibious Warship and 5th-Gen Air Supremacy to Counter China

Kris Osborn - President, Center for Military Modernization

Any Chinese maritime buildup for an amphibious attack on Taiwan would most likely be seen by US and allied surveillance and even commercial satellites, yet given the size and lethality of China’s fast-growing Navy, such a prospect clearly presents the Pentagon, Taiwan and its Pacific allies with a massive threat.

Such a contingency, particularly in light of China’s emerging fleet of quasi-stealthy Type 055 destroyers, new Type 075 amphibs and two operational aircraft carriers, might seem extremely difficult to defend. Could it be stopped?

A threat of this nature is quite likely the reason why the US Navy continues joint, allied patrols and war preparation training exercises such as dual-carrier operations, as the key to thwarting any Chinese advance on Taiwan would not only require “forward presence” of surface warships but likely be determined by US undersea and air superiority. Of course US Navy Virginia-class attack submarines, which are increasingly stealthier with quieting technologies, armed with torpedoes and capable of clandestine ISR missions near enemy islands and coastline, would be in an optimal position to detect and attack Chinese boats approaching Taiwan.

Yet another US and allied advantage would undoubtedly come from the air, given that the US now operates hundreds of F-35s and regularly engages in “forward patrols” and deterrence missions in the Pacific. Simply put, should US and allied 5th-generation air power be in position to respond fast-enough, they seem positioned to quickly establish air superiority over the Taiwan Strait. This could prove decisive and ultimately, along with submarines, offer the best window of hope for US Navy forces to destroy approaching Chinese forces.

The Chinese do operate a small number of 5th-generation J-20 stealth aircraft, yet they must deploy from land and are not maritime-capable and able to operate closer-in on the seas. The Chinese are also developing a new carrier-launched J-31 5th-Gen aircraft, however this is very early on and does not exist in credible numbers. Also, perhaps of greatest significance, the Chinese do not have an F-35B Vertical-take-off-and-landing 5th-Gen aircraft like the Marine Corps and would therefore be challenged to operate forward in maritime warfare with impactful numbers of 5th-generation aircraft. Certainly any Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan would have great difficulty without an air threat or air supremacy in any fashion, something they would most likely be unable to achieve, given the numbers and proximity of US and allied F-35s. 

The America-class amphibious assault ships can, for example, deploy with 13-to-15 F-35Bs on board which, if complemented by impactful numbers of carrier-launched F-35Cs, would be well positioned to quickly establish air superiority. Why? Well even if a J-20 or J-31 were in any way comparable to US 5th-Gen combat capability, and there is no assurance that they are, they simply do not exist in the numbers needed to challenge any kind of US-allied 5th-generation formation. To quote the famous Sun-Tzu, “mass-matters,” a seemingly timeless concept which still applies today in an extremely high-tech warfare environment.

As for the J-20 and J-31, various Pentagon reports and lawmakers such as Wittman express dismay that indeed much of China’s 5th-gen stealth fighter technology appears to have been stolen from the US. Chinese cyber theft of US weapons specs has been well documented and openly discussed as a serious US concern in Congressional reports as well as Pentagon news stories and well-sourced independent essays as well. Certainly upon looking at the external configuration of a J-31, it looks strikingly similar to a stealth, blended wing-body F-35. The J-20 has external similarities with both the F-22 and F-35.

J-20

J-20

“Aircraft, you know, most of the technology from the J-20 was stolen from the United States. But nonetheless, we have to deal with that, but it should remind us what we need to do to protect our technology. But also what it reminds us to is that you know where we are taking the next step with the F 35 Bravo (F-35B), the Alpha(F-35A) and the Charlie(F-35C), as they are incredibly capable aircraft. What we can do to take those aircraft and move them in the areas where we can also use other platforms,” Rep. Rob Wittman, (R-Va), ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, told Warrior in an interview.

The real margin of difference between Chinese and US 5th-generation aircraft, however, likely resides in technologies and performance parameters not entirely related to external configuration. Of course the nature and effectiveness of radar absorbent materials would be impactul, and that is something potentially not fully known of the Chinese aircraft, stealth configuration alone would not be sufficient to ensure overmatch or airwar superiority. 

The better or more capable aircraft between the Chinese J-20, J-31 and F-35 would more likely be determined by the quality of computing, AI-enabled data management, sensor range and fidelity and weapons range and precision. For instance, as has been the case with the F-35 in numerous Air Force wargaming exercises, the aircraft is able to use its next-generation, computer enabled sensing and on board computing to see and destroy enemy aircraft from safe stand-off ranges, before it can actually be detected itself. Such an ability, often demonstrated by the F-35, would almost ensure overmatch. Therefore, the answer to which aircraft is superior may pertain to a host of unknown or difficult to determine variables such as the range, targeting and sensing capabilities of Chinese 5th-generation aircraft when compared to US 5th-gen planes.

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Wittman agreed that F-35 US amphibious assault groups, forward positioned in three-ship Marine Expeditionary Units(MEU), would provide a serious impediment to any Chinese amphibious attack on Taiwan.

“The neat thing about it is that the MEU is fully deployed with all three ships together with LPDs and LHAs. It is incredible what that platform and that view provides that is a credible threat to the Chinese. Especially if they look at doing a naval - amphibious operation on Taiwan, that's an incredible impediment to what they see as what they'd have to go through in order to land there on Taiwan and to pursue the effort to take Taipei. They don't have a compliment for that,” Wittman said.

Sure enough, China does not have sufficient numbers of carrier launched 5th-generation J-31s or a vertical take-off 5th-gen aircraft capable of operating from amphibious assault ship. China is quickly building a new generation of Type 075 amphibs, with the third one already under construction. However while these ships may operate helicopters, they do not appear to have 5th-generation air power. Therefore, it seems somewhat self-evident that any Chinese amphibious advance would be extremely vulnerable to being completely destroyed by US, Japanese and South Korean 5th-generation air power.

Perhaps the most significant factor when it comes to deterring or destroying a Chinese attack on Taiwan may be related to US allies. Should US Navy forward presence in the form of dual-carriers and Marine Expeditionary Units armed with amphibs, drones and 5th-gen aircraft be sufficiently “forward,” they could likely arrive with enough time to counter if not destroy an attacking Chinese amphibious force. 

Japan and South Korea, for instance, are both F-35 countries and Japan is a US partner with the Aegis Combat System able to track and intercept ballistic missiles. Japanese and US warships in the Pacific would be well positioned to see and potentially knock out incoming Chinese-fired ballistic missiles headed for Taiwan. This is extremely significant, as any amphibious attack on Taiwan is almost certain to be preceded by a Chinese attack with a salvo of ballistic missiles capable of reaching Taiwan from Chinese shores.

“The way that we can most effectively deter China is for them to know that our allies, Japan, Australia, and others, can come to the fight quickly so that if they pursue things and listen, we'll get we'll get some lead time not as much lead time as maybe we would like we'll get some lead time on that. And the question is, how quickly can we amass forces? And how quickly can we get our allies there? And that that's, that's going to be the key because not all the allies in the region, they're necessarily going to come initially to the fight? So the question is, how do we leverage that in ways that are better that are quick and effective? Wittman said.

Wittman’s reference to allied power in the Pacific is extremely significant, as the Pentagon has been accelerating efforts to strengthen and expand ties, joint-training and strategy initiatives with its key allies in the Pacific such as Japan, South Korea and Australia. While such alliances are paramount to any deterrence posture, they are also extremely capable warfighting forces, and continuing to rapidly grow in that direction. Japan, for instance, recently made a large, multi-billion dollar F-35 buy, a move which places 5th-generation aircraft closer to Taiwan and the Chinese border. South Korea is also an F-35 country and has in recent years conducted joint, Theater Sustainment Packages on patrol with US F-35s.

Added to the proximity of 5th-generation aircraft, it is extremely significant to point out that both Japan and South Korea maintain massive ground armies of roughly 1 million soldiers for both Japan South Korea, according to Global Firepower. While certainly any US response to a Taiwan invasion would hope to destroy an attacking Chinese force from the air or undersea before the island could be annexed, the US and its allies recognize they also need to be prepared to forcibly “extricate” an occupying Chinese force from Taiwan. 

This contingency is likely why Taiwan continues to acquire Abrams tanks and other ground-war platforms. Such a prospect would be extremely difficult and likely come with an unacceptable price in terms of casualties, however it does seem realistic that with 5th-gen stealth air superiority, long-range strike and a multi-million soldier modern ground force that a US-Japanese-South Korean force could dislodge China from Taiwan and take back the island. This would, however, require the deployment of heavy armor, something which is difficult to move and would require a secure beachhead for amphibious landing. Such a task is by no means impossible however, as there are many ship such as the Navy’s Expeditionary Fast Transport vessel, Ship-to-Shore Connector and other vessels capable of transporting Abrams tanks from ship to shore. Clearly this would be something to avoid, as both attack submarines and 5th-generation air power would seem to be well-positioned to fully eliminate or cripple a Chinese amphibious assault well in advance of an attacking force reaching Taiwan shores.

“I was very honored to visit a couple of weeks ago with one myth out there at Camp Pendleton. I went out and visited there with General Smith and I got to fly out to the 13th MEU on the USS Makin Island. Let me tell you, those marines and sailors are proud because they have a full complement of F 35s and V-22s. on board. That's an incredibly capable ship,” Wittman said.

Wittman said he was glad the Navy and Marine Corps are crafting strategy documents and refining tactics with these kinds of scenarios in mind.

“Listen, our Sailors and Marines are incredibly, incredibly analytical and the things that they face, but incredibly creative and imaginative about how to solve those complex problems of risks that the Chinese potentially placed upon us,” Wittman said. 

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn

Kris Osborn