Facing China—The Tyranny of Distance, Numbers and Logistics

Comparison between Southwest Asia AORs and the China/Pacific AOR

 China’s military’s growth and increasing belligerency has caused it to become the “it girl” for the United States’ military strategy.  As a nation, they have outpaced all technological predictions of their military modernization, and what they lack in technological edge, they compensate for in mass.

Protecting our Pacific Rim allies, including (but not limited to) Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, presents a strategic/operational challenge we have not tackled since World War II with MacArthur and Nimitz’ Island hopping campaign.  Additionally, the speed and lethality of 21st Century weapons does not give us three years to succeed, and we cannot retrograde and ‘give up’ territory with any hopes of gaining it back like we did during World War II.  There are three main challenges that the United States must address simultaneously and with an equal level of success to be able to be credible in the Pacific.  They are the Tyrannies of Distance, Capacity and Logistics.

  • Tyranny of Distance

The Pacific Ocean is huge.  The distance between Guam and Hawaii is similar to the distance across the Atlantic Ocean.  Basing out of Hawaii for any offensive airborne assets would be like conducting the Combined Bomber Offensive in Europe from Maine.

These distances limit in time our forces’ capacity because of required enroute times, regeneration times, post time over target, and increases the crews’ exposure time to threats because of the variety of threats and their ability to position anywhere in the Pacific with relative ease.

The dramatic distances make first island chain basing a must for our advanced 5th and 4thplus generation fighters to be relevant.  Additionally, our carrier force will need to be positioned within an effective distance of the Chinese mainland and with the ability to protect our allies in the area.

2nd Island Chain basing leaves extended ranges ‘to the fight’, useful only for bombers, tankers, and as airlift hubs.  Still, these bases are absolutely essential, in part because of the limitations in ramp space and vulnerabilities of the first island chain bases to a myriad of threats, including ballistic and cruise missiles.  These bases provide a significant amount of logistical support and infrastructure, but the distances to the key areas of interest add to the immensity of the second tyranny—Numbers.

  •  Tyranny of Numbers

The original plans for 5th generation force acquisitions were for 1,763 F-35s for the Air Force and over 500 F-22s.  The F-22 buy was cut significantly short of that number to 187, and our F-35 force is below 400 and growing at less than a wing (~75 aircraft) a year.  Our 5th gen fleets offer significant capability in terms of speed (F-22), first-look opportunities, passive defensive systems via low observable (LO) technology, and sensors/data fusion, but they dramatically lack a suitable weapons load.  An F-15E is a flying mass of chaff, but it weapons load for both air to air and air to ground is significant.  The F-15EX is purported to be even better, with up to over 3 times the air-to-air load of an F-22.  Similarly, the F-16’s weapons load dwarfs the F-35’s.  The F-35 can hang weapons on non-LO pylons, but then it loses the reason we spend more money on it than any other defense program.

In 2018, the Air Force put forth an article titled, “The Air Force We Need: 386 operational squadrons”.  It spelled out a force that needed to grow by 74 operational squadrons, including 1 Airlift, 5 Bomber, 22 ISR, 7 Fighter, 2 Strike/Reconnaissance RPA, 7 Special Operations Forces and 14 Tanker squadrons.  This force was designed to counter the threat posed by China, Russia and other Third-world conflict areas.  Because of the size, capability, and AOR associated with China, I’d argue that even if we focused solely on China, most of these squadrons are still required, maybe even as a minimum force.  To that point, China’s military growth and modernization even since 2018 has been more than expected.

Despite the stated requirement, the Air Force continually offers near-term risk for the promise of greater capabilities in the future.  This approach is potentially disastrous.  We need to modernize our forces, but not at the expense of current capability.  Every flyable tail currently occupying a parking space on an Air Force ramp is needed to deter China.  Every tail is and needs to remain relevant until a replacement is operational.  Short term force reduction for tomorrow promises doesn’t look so good if the threat is near-term.

Tails matter.  Weapons loads matter.  And proper application of existing and near-term capabilities matters if we are to stand a chance against the growing threat of China in the Indo-Pacific region AND at to defend the homeland.  Never mind the rest of the world.

  • Tyranny of Logistics

Like an aircraft carrier, and even more so, an airfield represents generation of combat power.  In the Pacific, there are few optimum airfields capable of handling the throughput required of even a fighter wing, never mind bombers, tankers, airlift sorties, and other support sorties that help a forward deployed force function.  The limits include runways, size of runways, ramp space and protected facilities, defense emplacements, logistics handling capabilities and equipment, hangar and storage space, and personnel facilities.  Even less are the airfields located close to a port of value that can handle munitions, heavy equipment and the like—stuff all mainly delivered via sea.

Each of these larger airfields become a high-value asset, required to protect it at all costs from in many cases a 360-degree threat from surface, sub-surface airborne and ballistic threats.  Its protection will take a larger infrastructure, or partner smaller airfields/facilities nearby.   All of these requirements increase Tyranny #2 of Capacity.

The DoD Budget needs a haircut of non-defense pet projects and pork that does nothing for the defense of our nation.  These funds will be better utilized to improve aircraft availability and lethality/capability of aircraft currently on the ramp.  It also needs to grow to account for capabilities, capacity, and our present and growing threat in the Pacific.  I don’t care about 2035 and the promises of the defense contractors.  I care about deterring—and defeating if necessary—a belligerent China right now.