The U.S. military probably has enough warplanes to win a war with China in the western Pacific. What it doesn’t have is enough bases.
But maybe American troops could “borrow” those bases … from China. By dropping paratroopers or landing Marines on some of Beijing’s new island outposts.
Distance is the great destroyer of tactical air power, especially in the vast Asia-Pacific region. Most modern fighters can fly and fight no farther than 500 miles from their bases. Refueling tankers realistically can add a few hundred miles to a fighter’s combat radius.
The amount of air power China and the United States can bring to bear in a war over, say, the disputed islands of the South China Sea depends in large part of how many bases each country can set up, supply and protect within 500 miles of the major battle zones.
Aircraft carriers qualify as bases, and on that count the U.S. Pacific Fleet with its five nuclear supercarriers and five smaller assault ships has the advantage over the Chinese fleet with its two medium carriers. None of China’s assault ships can support fixed-wing planes.
But China since 2013 has built unmoving aircraft carriers in the form of island outposts in the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Seas. Several of the 27 outposts include runways, in particular Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratlys and Woody Island in the Paracels.
The island bases, plus the scores of airfields along the coast in southeast China, allow Beijing to disperse its warplanes. This dispersal can help to protect planes from U.S. missile and bomber raids.
American planes by comparison normally are concentrated on a smaller number of permanent bases. Kadena air base on Japan’s Okinawa prefecture is the main hub for U.S. and allied tactical air power in the western Pacific. During a crisis, the base could host hundreds of fighters and support planes.
The Pentagon’s other major base in the region, in Guam, is 1,750 miles from the South China Sea. Andersen Air Force Base usually hosts bombers, tankers and spy planes, all of which possess much greater endurance than fighters do.
It’s not for no reason that, in a major war, China almost certainly would target Kadena. When the Center for a New American Security—a Washington, D.C. think-tank—gamed out a war in the China Seas this summer, a Chinese missile attack on Kadena effectively ended the simulation.
The Pentagon knows it has a problem. The U.S. Navy is building a new airfield on Mageshima just south of the main Japanese islands. The U.S. Marine Corps recently redeveloped a World War II airfield on Tinian.
But Mageshima and Tinian both are a thousand miles from the South China Sea. The U.S. Air Force has developed procedures for breaking up its squadrons and dispersing small fighting units across a greater number of airfields. The Marines long have practiced similar “expeditionary” air operations.
But they need more basing options. If China craters Kadena and sinks or damages a couple of carriers, America’s F-15s, F-16s, F-22s and F-35s wouldn’t be able to reach the war zone without a huge surge in aerial tankers flying from Guam or major, and risky, intervention in the conflict by a U.S. ally such as The Philippines, Vietnam or Singapore. Countries whose own bases could put U.S. air power in range of the South China Sea.
There’s an alternative. A risky but promising one. U.S. troops could capture some of China’s island outposts. If they succeeded, American fighters could surge into the heart of the South China Sea.
Don’t think the Pentagon hasn’t thought about it. Back in July, 350 paratroopers from the Army’s 25th Infantry Division flew in Air Force C-17 transports from Alaska to Guam and practiced dropping onto, and capturing, a simulated enemy airfield.
The Air Force is buying containerized “deployable air base systems”—a.k.a., “bases in a box”—that can help engineers quickly re-establish operations on battle-damaged, captured airfields.
The Marine Corps still trains to storm beaches and capture airfields, just like it did during World War II. The Navy has developed a whole new doctrine for helping air, ground and amphibious forces seize, hold and supply far-flung outposts—all while under fire by Chinese missileers.
Beijing knows its islands are in Washington’s crosshairs. China has fortified many of the islands with radars, missiles and guns and practiced flying air patrols over them. In a crisis, expect the People’s Liberation Army to reinforce the islands with additional planes, weapons and troops.
Seizing a Chinese outpost would be tough. An airborne force would have to penetrate dense air-defenses. An amphibious flotilla would have to fight its way past Chinese submarines and anti-ship missile batteries. A base-seizure operation could end up looking a lot like the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Theater of World War II.
But capturing China’s island bases also could go a long way to negating a key Chinese advantage—by dismantling the main infrastructure propping up Beijing’s South China Sea strategy.