China Thinks Its Air Force Can Deter or Even Defeat the US Air Force, and the USAF is Responding

by Darien Cavanaugh. He is writing on politics, foreign policy, global conflict, and weapons platforms has been published at War is Boring, offiziere.ch, The National Interest, Real Clear Defense, Yahoo! News, The Week, Global Comment, and the Center for Securities Studies. To see more of his work, visit his website.

Chinese airmen walk in formation prior to a combat drill with H-6K bombers (Photo: Yang Ruikang).

Chinese airmen walk in formation prior to a combat drill with H-6K bombers (Photo: Yang Ruikang).

RAND Project AIR FORCE publicly released a 73-page report in November that outlines the goals and capabilities of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its air force, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). RAND Project AIR FORCE is the division of the RAND Corporation that serves as “the U.S. Air Force’s federally funded research and development center for studies and analyses.” The report was authored by Scott W. Harold, an Associate Director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at RAND.

Titled “Defeat, Not Merely Compete: China’s View of Its Military Aerospace Goals and Requirements in Relation to the United States,” Harold’s report examines how the PLA “strives to match or exceed the capabilities of the United States in military aerospace” as well as how the PLA “approaches the question of whether to copy from a leading foreign aerospace power or to develop a new and innovative approach to accomplishing a mission or fielding a capability.”

Harold suggests that the PLAAF attempts to “copy” the US Air Force (USAF) in some areas, as demonstrated by its penchant for “stealing” technology from the USAF or its efforts to adopt aspects of the US military’s logistics of power projection, and notes that even the PLAAF’s “bright eyes, strong fists, and long arms” motto mimics the USAF’s vision of “global vigilance, global reach, global power.”

Assessing the Degree Of PLA Imitation of U.S. Military Aerospace (Source: Scott W Harold, “Defeat, Not Merely Compete: Chinas View of Its Military Aerospace Goals and Requirements in Relation to the United States“, RAND Corporation, 2018, p. 4).

However, he also points out several areas in which the PLA and the PLAAF rely on innovation rather than copying. For instance, China uses UAVs differently than the US because it has different capabilities, political imperatives, and operational goals. The PLA also chose innovation over imitation when it realized it would likely lose a significant number of aircraft and pilots if it needed to attack US aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean anytime in the near future. Instead of looking at how the US might deal with such a situation, the PLA developed the first operational anti-ship ballistic missile supposedly capable of immobilizing or even destroying a supercarrier in a single strike.

In regard to how the PLA and PLAAF hope to “match or exceed” US capabilities, Harold examines fundamental ideological changes taking place within the PLA. Drawing on research conducted by Chinese military theorists, Harold argues that since roughly 2004 the PLAAF has been transforming from a defensive force concerned primarily with defending China’s territory into a “strategic air force” that can “directly support national policy objectives and achieve a wide range of strategic goals.”

This “wide range of strategic goals” alludes to, among other things, China’s efforts to extend its military influence into other theaters, such as Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and the Indian Ocean. Harold’s report states that in order to achieve these goals, China continues to expand its military as a means of deterrence but is increasingly willing to engage the US in a military conflict. More importantly, China is starting to think it could win.

“The PLA seeks not merely to compete with, but to defeat, the U.S. military, should the two countries ever come into direct confrontation,” Harold writes. “The overwhelming majority of China’s military capabilities developments and reforms, including its military aerospace capabilities developments, have been oriented toward this goal.”

A Chengdu J-20, the PLAAF's fifth-generation stealth fighter, in flight during the opening of the Zhuhai Airshow in China (Source: Alert5, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

A Chengdu J-20, the PLAAF’s fifth-generation stealth fighter, in flight during the opening of the Zhuhai Airshow in China (Source: Alert5, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

An overt desire to expand China’s sphere of military influence and to be able to “defeat” the US military in a conflict, in the manner that Harold describes, stands in contrast to the “active defense” approach that the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the PLA adhered to for decades, and still publicly advocated as recently as 2015. That year China’s Information Office of the State Council released a summary of China’s military strategy that included a section titled “Strategic Guideline of Active Defense”:

The strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the CPC’s military strategic thought. From the long-term practice of revolutionary wars, the people’s armed forces have developed a complete set of strategic concepts of active defense, which boils down to: adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense; adherence to the principles of defense, self-defense and post-emptive strike; and adherence to the stance that “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.

James Holmes, who serves as the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College, has compared China’s active defense strategy to the “rope-a-dope” technique Muhammad Ali famously used in his Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman and other bouts. “To oversimplify,” Holmes wrote in an article for The National Interest, “the conceit behind active defense is that a weaker China can lure a stronger pugilist into overextending and tiring himself before delivering a punishing counterpunch.” Despite the obvious limitations of such a strategy, Holmes concluded that China could defeat the US in a war over the South China Sea, for instance, simply by “outlasting” its stronger foe, just as Ali outlasted Foreman.

Holmes has not been the only one to suggest that the US military could face more difficulty than it may like to admit in a conflict with China. In 2015, RAND released a report titled “The U.S.-China Military Scorecored: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996-2017” that chronicled recent developments in the respective militaries and predicted their ongoing effects into the near future. A section of the report titled “The Receding Frontier of U.S. Dominance” noted:

Not since the Vietnam War has the United States fought a sustained air superiority campaign in which U.S. aircraft were challenged by both enemy fighters and ground-based air defenses. Not since World War II has it fought an enemy capable of putting its major surface ships or submarines at risk through anything other than surprise, one-off raids. Nor since that time has it fought a high-intensity war in which its support facilities, including regional air and naval bases, were expected to operate while under systematic conventional attack. And it has never fought an opponent armed with precision standoff weapons, operationalized counterspace capabilities, or well-developed and practiced cyberwarfare capabilities, much less one armed with nuclear weapons.

While the report made it clear that the US military still owns a “major advantage” over China’s military in many regards, it nevertheless made some rather grim conclusions about what the USAF and Navy could expect in a war with China:

Conflict with China would look even less like recent wars, in which the United States established air and naval supremacy in a matter of hours or days and then proceeded to “apply force” from secure bases. Rather, this would be a war in which the United States would be challenged in the air, on (and under) the water, in space, and across the electromagnetic spectrum. U.S. forces would be hard-pressed from the start and they would probably not enjoy sanctuary in regional bases. Also unlike recent wars, the U.S. military could well sustain significant air and naval losses.

Harold’s report for RAND Project AIR FORCE was not released to the public until last month, but it was shared with USAF leaders in September of 2017. It undoubtedly contributed to Pentagon’s decision, just a few months after acquiring the report, to conduct a major revaluation of its air and naval forces.

In January of this year, Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Military Times that the US military needs to expand considerably in order to stay ahead of the the militaries of Russia and China. Troxell underscored the importance of strengthening the US Navy and Air Force.

Troxell also alluded to the growing possibility of a Russia-China military alliance, saying, “We have to have a robust force where we can defeat one of those nation-state threats in one theater and potentially deny the objectives of another, along with keeping pressure on these violent extremists like ISIS, and in the end still be able to defend our homeland.”

Soon after Troxell made those statements, the US Air Force began a six-month study into how it would address the growing demands that it faces. On September 17, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson presented the findings of that research in a keynote address titled “The Air Force We Need” given at the Air Force Association’s Air Space and Cyber Conference (see Video below).

Wilson called for adding 74 more squadrons to the USAF by 2030. That would increase the number of USAF operational squadrons from 312 to 386, or by roughly 24 percent, in just over ten years. According to Wilson, that’s how big the USAF needs to be if it wants to compete with a “peer adversary” like China or Russia in prolonged combat. That is, at least if the USAF wants “to win.”

“We must see the world as it is,” Wilson said. “That was why the National Defense Strategy explicitly recognizes that we have returned to an era of great power competition.”

Despite the evidence that the PLA is shifting towards a more offensive military ideology that increasingly embraces power projection and expanding its sphere of influence, Harold ultimately concludes that deterrence remains the primary goal of all branches of the PLA, including the PLAAF.

“It is important to recognize that many of the PLA’s efforts in the military aerospace sector focus on fielding specific capabilities in sufficient quantities to deter the United States from entering a conflict,” Harold writes. “The PLA would vastly prefer this over victory through combat.”

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, China, Darien Cavanaugh, English, International, Security Policy.

2 Responses to China Thinks Its Air Force Can Deter or Even Defeat the US Air Force, and the USAF is Responding

  1. Heinz Dieter Jopp says:

    I miss a discussion about the Chinese inability of producing high end jet engines. Another point would be a discussion about their inexperience in combat missions.

  2. Karl Boden says:

    Why is the PLA criticised for ‘wanting to win’ whereas later in the article it is stated that the USAF needs to expand if ‘it wants to win’. Is not every defence system built on the basis of ‘wanting to win’ in battle ? The USAF has been enormously offensive, especially in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya etc etc. The Chinese Airforce has never in history been on the offensive side. I think in Europe we have much more to fear from a US leader like Trump and his army than the Chinese.

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