Video Above: U.S. and China: South China Sea Tensions
China’s recent 20-fighter jet-strong flyby of J-10s and J-16s over Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone amounts to what the Pentagon may see as a transparent provocation or “power statement” by Beijing. There were even larger fly-overs of the ADIZ before in Oct., 2021 as well, indicating a Chinese interest in possibly highlighting Taiwan’s vulnerability to major air attack. Taiwan does not appear to have large numbers of air defenses or advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMS). Taiwan is known to operate Patriot missiles and is in the process of acquiring more according to numerous news reports, yet Patriot interceptors are not equipped to counter fighter jets. A Patriot can track and destroy an incoming ballistic missile to a growing extent, to include multiple maneuvering targets at once, yet it falls well short of being able to attack overhead fighter jets.
Could Taiwan counter any Chinese fighter jets with SAMS? Maybe, but it may come down to a question of scale, numbers and territory. Should Taiwan have effective SAMS, would there be enough of them over wide enough of a range to counter a large Chinese air campaign? That may be unclear. Taiwan does have domestically-engineered Sky Bow III Tien Kung Surface to Air Missile systems built by the Taiwan-based National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology. The weapons have an ability to track and intercept ballistic missiles, fighter jets and other airborne threats out to ranges of approximately 200km, according to a report in Army Technology.
“TK III land-based air defence weapon system is composed of surface-to-air missile, canister, and mobile fire control units, including phased array radar, communication relay, engagement control station, launcher, and power plant equipment,” the Army-Technology report says. The Skybow, the Army-Technology report says, is engineered with an active radar guidance system, internal midcourse guidance and microwave seeker in the nose of the missile for accuracy.
The Skybow has “four tail fins and is vertically launched. A directional warhead with high-energy fragments enables the missile to destroy targets with high single-shot probability of kill. The missile launcher has four containers, which support both TK III and TK II missiles,” the Army-Technology report states.
The weapons are in the process of being integrated into fixed locations around Taiwan.
Radio Taiwan International published a report in Aug, 2021 saying Taiwan is building and renovating 12 missile bases in Miaoli to house Skybow 3.
These SAMS are fortified by additional air surveillance technologies and weapons interceptors, according to a military analysis journal called “IMINT & Analysis.” The Journal says Taiwan operates eleven EW facilities, twenty-two fixed missile batteries occupied by HAWK, Patriot and Tien Kung SAMs.
“These systems have engagement ranges of 40 kilometers, 160 kilometers, and 200 kilometers, respectively. A further twenty two Skyguard facilities are located to provide close-in defense of key population centers and military facilities, some of which are equipped with 18 kilometer range RIM-7M Sparrow missiles,” the Journal states.
.Chinese Air Attack Threat
The Chinese Air Force is quickly moving to expand its fleet of air-to-air refueling aircraft to close a tanker deficit with the U.S. and more fully project global air power.
The U.S. operates as many as 625 tanker aircraft, whereas China is listed as only having three, according to Global Firepower. This lack of tankers would limit or even imperil any Chinese effort to launch a large-scale cross-continental air campaign.
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China already has fewer 5th-generation aircraft when compared to the U.S., NATO and Pacific allies. The absence of tankers makes it very difficult for Chinese fighter jets, with a likely combat radius of 300-to-500 miles, to travel thousands of miles across a continent or ocean area.
China can still easily reach Japan, Taiwan and possibly Australia, India and parts of Southeast Asia, however a cross-continental air-attack is likely out of reach.
C-130 and Y-20 Cargo Planes
“The PLAAF is developing the Y-20U, a new tanker variant of its large Y-20 heavy-lift transport, which will enable the PLAAF to significantly expand its tanker fleet and improve its power,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.
China may be accelerating the pace of construction of these Y-20 tankers to align with its evolving plan to achieve global domination by 2049. Should the attack ranges of its fighter jets and bombers such as the new H-20 be able to double their range, it opens up an entirely new mission envelope for the PLAAF.
This opens up an entirely new sphere of attack options for China. Nonetheless, the lack of tankers is likely one of many reasons why China is vigorously expanding it footprint and influence around the world to include more locations in the Middle East and Africa. Much of China’s incursions into Africa, apart from the emergence of a military base in Djibouti, are economic or business-oriented in nature. Any ability to base aircraft in parts of Northern Africa greatly improves the PLAAF’s ability to reach the European continent for potential air attacks.
This is extremely significant, because without a larger tanker fleet or substantial forward positioning, China would be ill equipped to handle any kind of air confrontation on a large scale beyond its own immediate region.
At the same time, a lack of tankers does not limit China’s ability to attack Taiwan or possibly even Japan. Japan, however, can be as far as 1,000 miles off the coast from parts of mainland China, depending upon take-off point. Therefore refueling, or amphibious forces, might be needed should China need to launch an invasion of Japan and give its fighter jets reach and dwell time.
Along these lines, a multifunctional Y-20 variant could make a large difference regarding amphibious attacks. Not only could the large cargo aircraft deliver supplies, ground troops or weapons to an amphibious landing area should a beachhead be secured, but it could enable fighter aircraft to help an amphibious attack pursue air superiority. China is quickly expanding its amphibious assault capacity with new ships and drones, therefore having additional, sustained fifth-generation airpower in support of amphibious assaults could bring an entirely new dimension to Chinese threats to Taiwan and other areas.
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.