In 2017, immediately defeating a surge of Chinese warplanes attacking Taiwan will require around 2,200 combat-ready U.S. fighter jets — a full two-thirds of all fighters in the American inventory. That’s the main conclusion of a new briefing paper from RAND, a California think tank.
RAND points out that the Pentagon has more and better fighters than China—and superior pilots, too. But over Taiwan, geography favors the People’s Liberation Army. “China does not need to catch up fully to the United States to challenge the U.S. ability to conduct effective military operations near the Chinese mainland.”
As RAND notes:
“Historically, PLA air forces have not posed much threat to neighboring countries. In the past two decades, however, China has rapidly modernized its air power. Whereas in 1996 China had just taken delivery of its first batch of 24 fourth-generation fighters, it now operates more than 700. The United States, in the meantime, has added fifth-generation fighters to its inventory, and its fleet remains both more advanced and larger than China’s.
Balanced against the aggregate U.S. advantage, however, are geographic and situational factors: China would enjoy the advantages of proximity in most Asian conflict scenarios. It would be able to operate from far more bases, allowing it to bring more aircraft to bear in a conflict, and its vital assets would be both dispersed over much greater areas and hardened against attack. Moreover, the few U.S. air bases within close proximity would likely face Chinese missile attack, degrading their ability to support operations.”
RAND crunched the numbers and decided that, by 2017, the United States would need to deploy 30 wings of 75 fighters each to the western Pacific in order to defeat outright a Chinese aerial assault on Taiwan. That’s “unsustainable,” according to the think tank.
“The United States would have better prospects of prevailing in an attrition campaign designed to defeat a Chinese air offensive over time,” RAND asserts. Seven wings could shoot down half of China’s warplanes in a week. To achieve the same thing in three weeks would require just four wings.
But three weeks is a long time in an invasion scenario. By then the Chinese army would likely have overrun Taiwan, RAND notes.