Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why the F-35? The China scenario

We mentioned yesterday the new AEI paper out entitled "Mass and Supremacy: A Comprehensive Case for the F-35" by Thomas Donnelly and Phillip Lohaus.  In it they methodically put together a very compelling case for the absolute necessity for a fighter like the F-35. 

They also point out that our history of preparing for the next war isn't a particularly good one.  An example is the belief by many that  our future only holds low intensity asymmetric warfare in the face of an increasingly prosperous and aggressive China who has made no secret of their desire to have more influence in their "near abroad".
China’s growing prosperity and accelerating military modernization have fundamentally shifted the view from the Pentagon. The role of high-technology conventional military power has returned—after more than a decade of sustained irregular warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq and continued emphasis on counter terrorism operations—as the principal focus of US defense planning.
We're only fooling ourselves if we choose to ignore this possible threat and continue to believe small war is all that is in our future.  At some point, our bluff is likely to be called.  That will obviously be when a country such as China - or others - think they can get away with it.
In a nutshell, the Pentagon has concluded that the operational challenge posed by China’s rapid development of advanced military technologies poses a strategic challenge to the United States and, indeed, to the international system. It is also apparent that other potential adversaries such as Iran are studying Chinese developments.
Thus the shift in our battle strategy and the rise of our new doctrine.  The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) summed it up this way:
“AirSea Battle, as a doctrine for the operational level of war, cannot and should not be seen as a ‘war- winning’ concept in itself. . . . Instead it should be viewed as helping to set the conditions . . . to sustain a stable, favorable conventional military balance throughout the Western Pacific region.”
Obviously, however, it must become a doctrine for "war winning".  But the important point is you must set up "conditions" favorable to ensuring that outcome.  And, as the authors of the AEI paper argue, the F-35 is the key to that.

So what would one suppose, looking at the direction of and the systems upon which Chinese military spending is concentrated?  Here's a likely general scenario:
Broadly speaking, the PLA’s expanding inventory of strike systems is creating the potential for a kind of East Asian “blitzkrieg”—a lightning campaign that would present the region and the United States with a fait accompli that might well be limited in scope and scale, but that would be costly and difficult to prevent. The strategic competition is not unlike that of the Cold War: though the probability of a war is low and overshadowed by the danger of nuclear weapons, the correlation of conventional forces is critical.
What do we then have to be able to do?
The first operational principle for deterring China is a credible forward conventional defense that brings critical allies into play from the start. Even without a formal chartering document, a China deterrence coalition must aspire to something functionally equivalent to the Washington Treaty’s “Article V.”
Note that term: "China deterrence coalition".  That too is a critical component of our Pacific strategy.  We have to build "partner capacity".  Japan's decision to buy the F-35 is an example of that.

Here's a specific idea of how a Chinese campaign - a "East Asian "blitzkrieg"- might unfold:
The study describes four characteristics of this notional Chinese campaign:

• “In the opening minutes of a conflict, China would seek to: Render U.S. and allied forces ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ by ‘destroying or degrading’ surveillance and communications capabilities, through anti-satellite and cyber attacks, jamming and other means.”

 • “Conduct ballistic missile salvo attacks, complemented by [land-attack cruise mis- siles] launched from various platform types, against U.S. and Japanese air and naval bases,” with the purpose of limiting US air power.

• “Conduct major strikes using land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles launched from various plat- forms . . . against all major U.S. Navy and allied warships within 1,500 [nautical miles] of the Chinese coast.”

•“Interdict U.S. and allied sea lines of communication throughout Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.”
 The question then is how do we develop a strategy to deter China from such an attempt, or, failing that, survive it and turn the tables?  Here are the author's thoughts on the subject:
The lessons for any China deterrence coalition could not be plainer: international politics and coalition strategy demand a forward defense and a forward operational posture, backed by both theater reserves and strategic reserves capable of denying the PLA the ability to secure its anti-access goals. This posture is required both to deter China from ever launching such an attack, and to deny Beijing geopolitical leverage from coercive threats. Broadly speaking, this strategy demands that the United States and its allies toughen their defenses, and, especially, disperse their forces.

The F-35 fleet is critical to ensuring that US forces and coalition forces are sufficiently capable at all echelons. It is crucial to understand the F-35 not simply as a uniquely capable platform, but as one of the few, if not the only, sources of operational mass in the Western Pacific theater. Without the mass and flexibility it provides, any first strike by China will fall on an inherently brittle defense.

The first order of business is ensuring that the covering force has the capability and capacity not just for reconnaissance and surveillance—nor simply to die in place—but to “develop the situation” in ways that convince the Chinese high command that it lacks the ability for a blitzkrieg-like campaign. Like the fighter wings and armored cavalry regiments that formed NATO’s front-line defenses, US and coalition forces along the long arc of the Western Pacific must possess organic mobility, firepower, and, above all, flexibility. They must be able to perform many roles to deny Beijing confidence in the PLA’s ability to quickly achieve a decisive result.

Creating an adequate “covering force” for the Western Pacific is a subject that deserves research well beyond the scope of this paper or the analytical capabilities of any single author. As the CSBA’s AirSea Battle and other studies have pointed out, there is a de facto “forward echelon” in the virtual and physical domains (including near-earth space and the electro-magnetic spectrum).

The requirement for a sizeable fleet of multirole, stealthy aircraft to secure these domains is plain. It is true that these aircraft will be vulnerable when parked at theater airfields within range of PLA missiles—but ensuring that Chinese aggression draws blood from many nations is a critical element in raising the bar of deterrence. This is a situation in which the political and strategic imperative for forward presence and quick response competes with—and must overbalance—the operational desire for depth. 
The point, of course, is that 4th generation aircraft, however souped up, will not do.  The bar has been raised.  At the center of our strategy are requirements they simply cannot fulfill (the primary one being "operational mass" which the authors explain in detail in the paper).  As they mention, it is a "uniquely capable platform" that the strategy, if it is to be successful, depends.

The point of spending some detailed time on this particular scenario is it isn't at all implausible and, more importantly, it underlines the folly of believing all our future wars will be low intensity, asymmetrical small war (and we therefore don't need a 5th generation fighter of the F-35's advanced capabilities).  There certainly may be more of those type wars in our future, but the F-35 will play a dominant and important role in those as well.


1 comment:

  1. excellent writeup as always. We need you to come in to Defensetech.org and try and get this concept through BloclOwl18E's thick skull.