How would the PLA use its air power in a Taiwan invasion in a late 2019 time frame?
The threat of a Taiwan contingency is the most persistent and likely military confrontation that the Chinese military (the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA) faces, and much of the PLA’s modernization over the last few decades has been designed for such a scenario. Various articles, commentaries, and even videos over the years have considered how a PLA invasion of Taiwan may unfold and the degree of success or failure that each side may enjoy.
This piece will be the first of a three-part series discussing the main methods the PLA may use to prosecute a Taiwan invasion in a late 2019 time frame. The part is devoted to PLA air power; part two at the end of this month will examine PLA missile, naval, and ground elements. Part three will finally consider procurement and strategies the Taiwan armed forces (ROCArF) could take to counter PLA advantages, as well as to consider the PLA’s future trajectory and possible Taiwan-specific capabilities they may seek to procure.
Even rudimentary conflict modeling cannot be done without establishing political and strategic goals as well as the environment leading up to the conflict. For the purposes of this series, we will describe the geopolitical environment as a standard Taiwan independence scenario where the party holding power in Taipei makes overt political moves toward independence (including political rhetoric and symbolic public displays) with an associated increase in Chinese counter-warnings regarding political red lines,. This evolves through a period of two months where political and military tensions across the Taiwan Strait escalate, culminating in the Taiwan government declaring formal political independence and an immediate Chinese military response by announcement of a resumption of the Chinese Civil War, declaring the political goal of “reunification” and the military goal of a military invasion and elimination of ROCArF military resistance.
This article assumes the PLA will seek to achieve their goal as quickly as practically possible, partly to reduce the time available for the United States to decide to militarily intervene. This article will cover a scenario involving two weeks of active preparation and one week of active conflict, during which the United States is not directly involved. However, the PLA will also not be able to commit the entirety of all of its forces for this conflict, as additional assets will be held in reserve in the case of U.S. intervention as well as for key strategic directions in the west and northeast, facing India and the Korean Peninsula respectively. Thus, for the purposes of this article, only approximately one-third of the total mobile PLA assets such as tactical aircraft and naval forces will be allocated for use in this contingency. The ROCArF military goal will be to defend and exact as many casualties from the PLA as possible using the forces they have available and to survive with military and political coherency for as long as possible in the hope of U.S. intervention.
In any conflict scenario there are various “wildcards” that can be allocated in favor of one faction or the other. Military training and basic competency of troops and officers are perhaps the most immediate confounding factors for assessing combat effectiveness. Military morale and civilian morale can greatly influence a nation’s overall resolve and willingness to fight, and is particularly important for the ROCArF given Taiwan’s defense will likely be significantly dependent on conscripts and reservists. Other factors such as assassinations, sabotage, strategic espionage breakthroughs, and cyberattacks, may also greatly change the political and military coherency and capability of one side if successes are granted in such a conflict scenario. For the purposes of this article, these “wildcards” such as training, morale, assassinations and sabotage, espionage, and cyberattacks will not be considered and no advantage will be granted to either the PLA or the ROCArF from the onset of conflict.
T-day will be used to describe day of the conflict’s onset.
Lastly, various relevant acronyms will be outlined, applicable to all parts of this series:
AEW&C: Airborne Early Warning and Control
APAR: Active Phased Array Radar
ASW: Antisubmarine Warfare
C4I: Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence
CAS: Close Air Support
DAM: Direct Attack Munitions
DDG: Guided Missile Destroyer
DEAD: Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses
E/S/C/W/NTC: Eastern/Southern/Central/Western/Northern Theater Command
ECM: Electronic Counter Measures
ELINT: Electronic Intelligence
EW: Electronic Warfare
FFG: Guided Missile Frigate
HALE/MALE UAV: High Altitude Long Endurance/Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
I/SRBM: Intermediate/Short Range Ballistic Missile
IADS: Integrated Air Defense System
ISR: Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance
LACM: Land Attack Cruise Missile
MPA: Maritime Patrol Aircraft
PLA: People’s Liberation Army
PLAAF: People’s Liberation Army Air Force
PLAMC: People’s Liberation Army Marine Corps
PLAN: People’s Liberation Army Navy
PLARF: People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force
ROCA: Republic of China Army
ROCAF: Republic of China Air Force
ROCArF: Republic of China Armed Forces
ROCN: Republic of China Navy
SAM: Surface to Air Missile
SAR: Synthetic Aperture Radar
SEAD: Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses
SIGINT: Signals Intelligence
SOM: Stand Off Munition
Military Aviation Disposition
Today, it is widely accepted that the balance of cross-strait air power has substantially shifted in the PLAAF’s favor through the last two decades in terms of technology and force multipliers. For the purposes of this conflict set in 2019, we will assume that one third of the PLAAF’s total tactical combat aircraft will be deployed to the ETC facing Taiwan, while the rest are held in reserve or remain at their standard posts at high levels of alert. The majority of the PLAAF’s modern bombers in service as of 2019 (namely the fleet of 90 odd strong H-6Ks) would likely be available for Taiwan contingencies given they field a combat radius capable of launching 1,500+ km LACMs from CTC or even WTC air bases. In terms of force multipliers, half of the PLA’s approximately 30 strong AEW&C aircraft, the majority of their Y-8 and Y-9 ELINT and ECM aircraft, as well as all of their 9 strong Tu-154M SAR aircraft would be deployed to the ETC given many of those aircraft would be most relevant and pressing for a Taiwan contingency.
Military airbases and civilian airbases on the mainland and Taiwan would likely be requisitioned for military use as well, and air defense systems (both fixed and mobile) would be deployed as well.
The entirety of the ROCArF’s aviation fleet would be considered available. For the PLA, a breakdown of PLAAF and PLANAF assets will follow as such:
- About 400 modern (4th and 4+ generation) tactical fighter aircraft: approximately 150 J-10A/B/C aircraft, approximately 150 Flanker family aircraft (40 J-11A, 60 J-11B, 50 J-16), and approximately 80 JH-7/A strike aircraft
- No 5th generation aircraft for the purposes of this scenario
- Approximately 90 H-6K bomber aircraft
- About 15 AEW&C
- About nine Tu-154M SAR aircraft
- About eight Y-8G/9G standoff ECM aircraft
- About eight Y-8/9 ELINT and SIGINT aircraft
- Eight to 10 KQ-200 ASW MPAs
- Up to two dozen (a limited number) HALE and MALE surveillance UAVs
In the weeks preceding T-day, aircraft would be redeployed throughout the country and AEW&C and ISR aircraft would operate within Chinese airspace near Taiwan, collecting ISR and air traffic information.
The Goals of PLA Airpower
The PLAAF and PLANAF would be required to fulfill three main operational roles from the onset of T-day:
First, air superiority. Flanker aircraft and J-10A/B/C would operate simultaneously with PLA strike missions to seize air superiority across the Taiwan Strait but likely not over Taiwan airspace proper (which would require SEAD and DEAD). Air superiority naturally would enable strikes at ROCArF force multipliers such as their limited number of E-2 AEW&C and P-3 MPAs, as well as to prevent ROCAF fighter aircraft from conducting strike sorties against PLA ships, bases and staging areas. The total number of modern 4th and 4+ generation aircraft in theater prior to the onset of T-day would slightly favor the ROCAF; however PLA strike and interdiction will likely greatly reduce the sortie rate of and availability of ROCAF fighters, if not outright destroy airframes on the ground, allowing PLA fighters to enjoy superior sortie rates. PLA fighters would be heavily supported by AEW&C, ELINT, and EW/ECM aircraft to provide superior situational awareness and networking to achieve their mission, a parameter where ROCArF fighters would be greatly disadvantaged.
Second, strike, interdiction, and maritime strikes, to be conducted in conjunction with PLARF SRBM and LACM units for coordinated air and missile strikes against high value targets such as ROCAF/N/A airbases, ROCArF C4I authorities, ROCN naval bases, ROCN ships, ROCA units, and identified IADS and AShM sites with related subsystems such as radar stations. Aircraft fulfilling this mission include H-6Ks carrying KD-20 LACMs and KD-63 SOMs, as well as JH-7/As, J-16s and possibly J-10Cs carrying KD-88 pattern SOMs. DAMs would not be utilized given the prerequisite for attaining air superiority and air control and the limited quantity and variety of DAMs seen in PLA service. JH-7/As and J-16s would also be important for the maritime strike role.
Third, AEW&C and ISR and EW/ECM. PLA medium-large AEW&C aircraft such as KJ-500, KJ-200 and KJ-2000 aircraft would seek to maintain at least two persistent 24 hour orbits within Chinese airspace facing the Taiwan Strait for monitoring air and maritime activity and relaying information to PLA aircraft, ships, air defenses, and building overall situational awareness. Two or more ELINT and SIGINT aircraft would also operate at standoff range within defended Chinese airspace alongside two or more Y-8G/Y-9G standoff ECM aircraft operating against ROCArF air defenses, early warning radars and fighter aircraft.
The pace at which the PLA will seek to apply air power – especially for air superiority and strike missions – will greatly depend on the success of preceding long range conventional strikes from SRBMs and LACMs, as well as the effectiveness of PLA AEW&C aircraft, EW/ECM aircraft, and ISR aircraft. It is unlikely that initial PLA missile strikes would eliminate all ROCAF airbases or fighter aircraft or cripple ROCAF IADS. However, it is likely that ROCAF sortie generation rates and IADS capability will be degraded. The PLA would likely seek to conduct follow-up strikes; however, the ROCAF would naturally seek to sortie as many aircraft as possible into the air to seize air superiority over the Taiwan Strait to provide greater offensive and defensive depth in the air. What will emerge in the initial hours of T-day is a complex air war over the Taiwan Strait as PLA fighters and ROCAF fighters both seek to establish air superiority.
The balance of air power across the Taiwan Strait 10 years ago was at approximate parity. Twenty years ago, the balance of air power could have been said to favor the ROCAF. However as of 2019, the overall quality and quantity of tactical fighter aircraft, force multipliers, jamming aircraft, weapons, and subsystems is one which favors the PLAAF, even assuming the PLA only fields one-third of its tactical fighter fleet for this scenario as earlier stipulated. In the event of a conflict, the quantitative balance of power will likely further worsen for the ROCAF as the much greater weight of initial PLA missile strikes will likely degrade ROCAF sortie rates and continue to degrade ROCAF sortie rates as airbases and temporary airfields suffer re-attack during the air war. The PLA’s quantitative fighter advantage will almost certainly be further compounded by the much larger advantage in AEW&C aircraft, standoff EW/ECM aircraft, and ELINT aircraft, where the PLA not only enjoys a significant advantage in airframe numbers but also overall system capability, size, and endurance.
In short, ROCAF fighters that become airborne will likely enter a battle space where they suffer a quantitative disadvantage exacerbated by greatly inferior situational awareness, as well as having to operate from airbases that may not be able to recover aircraft, assuming they are able to survive their sortie. Details of specific exchange ratios and sortie rates may be a matter of debate; however, it is likely that ROCAF combat aviation forces will be rapidly depleted within the opening few days of a conflict.