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Video Above: What Role Would 5th Generation Stealthy Fighter Jets Play in a War with China?

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

US Navy F-35Cs are taking off from two Carrier Strike Groups at the same time in the South China Sea, showing coordinated reach, power projection ability and the possibility of high-optempo attack in highly contested or sensitive areas of the Pacific.

F-35Cs Take Flight from Carrier Strike Groups

Dual carrier operations involving the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group and the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group have taken flight in close coordination with one another to perform a wide-spanning range of maritime warfare operations. These include anti-submarine warfare, air war, replenishment at sea, cross deck flight operations and maritime interdiction missions.

Sortie rate optempo and coordination is a large part of these kinds of maneuvers, as when take off missions and attach missions are synchronized, staggered and integrated, the US Navy has a much larger ability to project power. 

f-35C

An F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the ‘Argonauts’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, launches off the flight deck of Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Jan. 6, 2022. US Navy Photo

This kind of capability is especially critical in areas such as the Pacific where land bases are spread out, smaller in size and separated by vast swaths of ocean, complicating air attack possibilities. Launching stealth 5th-generation fighters from the sea quickly and in large numbers not only increases attack reach in an exponential fashion by placing otherwise inaccessible areas within reach, but it also greatly increases dwell time or “time on station” during which attacking aircraft can respond and make adjustments as new target information arrives.

In the context of the South China Sea, this kind of operational reach would likely prove to be of critical relevance, as the Spratly Island chain is hundreds of miles from many potential land-launch points for attack aircraft. A carrier-launched squadron of F-35Cs, for example, could circle disputed, high-threat island areas conducting reconnaissance, searching for targets and even conducting integrated attacks if need be. By launching from a carrier in the area would enable F-35s to attack for an extended period of time without necessarily needing to refuel.

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F-35 Deterrence

Of course there is a clear “deterrence” element to this kind of exercise, there is also the potentially vital issue of “forward presence.” Should China move on Taiwan, or perhaps even conduct staging operations in preparation for an invasion of Taiwan, the US Navy would want to be in position to respond. 

Video Above: Will China Make a Move on Taiwan? 

Time would be of the essence, meaning could US carrier-launched F-35s be able to respond fast enough, they might indeed be in a position to intercept or even destroy a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan. In order to prepare for this contingency, the US Navy of course needs to be familiar with the region and experienced when it comes to conducting operations there.

Without a large land footprint in the Pacific, the US military could still place itself in an advantageous position by virtue of its fleet of Carrier Strike Groups and ocean-launched 5th-generation fighters. 

Carl Vinson

Aircraft assigned to Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 2 and CVW 9 fly over the Philippine Sea on Jan. 22, 2022. Operating as part of U.S. Pacific Fleet, units assigned to Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Groups, Essex and America Amphibious Ready Groups, and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. US Navy Photo

A group of amphib-launched F-35Bs and carrier-launched F-35Cs could be positioned to challenge, stop or even fully destroy a Chinese amphibious attack. While China does have land launched, operational J-20 5th-generation fighters, it does not as of yet operate a sea or carrier-launched stealth fighter, something it is trying to do through the development of its J-31. A networked force of F-35s in close proximity, it would seem possible, might give the US Navy a clear advantage in the air, should they be able to get there fast enough.

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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization