Taiwan, under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), and the United States under President Donald Trump, have started a long overdue buildup of defensive capabilities to deter military aggression by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship. The problem is that developmental and funding timelines dictate that the balance of these planned capabilities, assuming they are continued by successor governments, will not be deployed to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan until the mid-2020s.
This then raises the essential question: can Taiwan and the United States win the “Taiwan Interregnum,” the period from now until there is a far more favorable balance of power on the Taiwan Strait? Or even more narrowly: can military capabilities that largely exist today sufficiently scare CCP dictator-for-life Xi Jinping (習近平) from adding millions of Taiwan invasion victims to the 1.7 million global victims of his Wuhan Coronavirus?
Below the thresholds of a balance of nuclear deterrence, Xi Jinping’s invasion calculations may in large part be determined by the bomber force balance between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the US. PLA Air Force (PLAAF) turbofan-powered bombers are relatively fast, have a long range that can be extended by aerial refueling, and can carry a large number of long-range precision guided weapons so the bombers can survive ground/sea-based air defenses. Most importantly, they are reusable, in contrast to ballistic missiles.
PLA bombers will carry a large proportion of the current ~2000 PLA theater missiles that will attack Taiwan’s military bases, and US forces in Japan, Guam, and other bases. For the US Indo-Pacific Command, its bomber forces offer the most rapid option for launching a massive non-nuclear attack against a PLA invasion of Taiwan.
After having failed in the 1990s to obtain Russia’s supersonic speed Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers, the PLAAF instead decided to radically upgrade its indigenously produced copies of the Tupolev Tu-16 subsonic speed medium bomber. Fitted with more powerful turbofan engines and more effective radar and electronics, the Xian Aircraft Corporation is now building three versions of its 4,000km range 6x cruise missile carrying H-6K bomber. The refuelable H-6N can carry a large 1,500km range anti-ship ballistic missile or 6x cruise missiles and the PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) H-6J can carry 6x 1,500 to 2,000km range cruise missiles.
Informal Chinese sources indicate that the PLAAF and PLANAF may build up to 9 to 12 new “brigades” each with 32 bombers, for totals of 288 to 384 bombers. In 2021 Xian may reveal its new stealthy flying-wing configured bomber, often called the “H-20,” that will have an intercontinental range.
Over the last five years H-6K bombers have ventured deep into the South China Sea, have proven their ability to surround Taiwan, and are beginning to cooperate with PLA Navy forces exercising in the South China Sea and on the east side of Taiwan. Over the last two years H-6K bombers have been practicing blockade operations against Taiwan as part of the CCP-PLA strategy to terrorize Taiwan into surrendering its freedom.
With new Xian Aircraft Corporation Y-20U large tanker aircraft coming online, expect modernized Xian H-6N ballistic missile-carrying bombers, escorted by refuelable Shenyang J-16 heavy fighters and J-20 5th-generation fighters, to exercise near the critical US bases on Guam or even probe the defenses of Hawaii. Both fighters now carry the deadly 200km range Luoyang PL-15 air-to-air missile (AAM).
In July 2019 and again on December 22, 2020, PLAAF H-6K bombers exercised with Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bombers. Both exercises entailed joint flights over the Sea of Japan, but later ventured south to the East China Sea, demonstrating a potential for joint operations against Japanese and US forces in Japan, should the PLA attack Taiwan.
The US Indo-Pacific Command can draw on a US Air Force bomber force consisting of 20 Northrop-Grumman stealthy flying-wing subsonic speed B-2 bombers and 78 Boeing B-52H subsonic bombers built in the 1960s. They are now beginning an engine upgrade and electronics modernization program that could extend their service life to the 2050s—nearing 100 years of service for this type. After retiring 17 older aircraft in 2021, the USAF will also have 45 supersonic speed capable Boeing B-1B bombers.
While the B-2 and B-52H bombers contribute to US nuclear deterrence missions, the B-1B is only capable of non-nuclear strikes, but is being upgraded to deliver decisive effects. It has just been equipped to carry 24 of the 925km range, precision-guided Lockheed-Martin AGM-158B Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile, Extended Range (JASSM-ER) and the self-guided AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) of similar range.
This means that 12 B-1Bs based on Guam could deliver 288 ground attack JASSM-ER or LRASM anti-ship strikes against invading PLA forces—well beyond the range of current PLA anti-aircraft missiles. The B-52H can carry 20 JASSM-ER/LRASMs internally and 12 more on wing-mounded pylons. Thus, 12 B-52s could deliver 384 precision ground attack or anti-ship JASSM-ER/LRASM strikes.
This means that provided their bases have not been attacked by PLA missiles and attacking PLA fighter aircraft can be held at bay, a combined force of 24 B-1B and B-52 bombers can attack 650 PLA targets on land or at sea with precision-guided missiles. Double the bombers and it becomes possible to sink most of the 1,000+ civil transport ships that will carry the bulk of the PLA’s Taiwan invasion force.
But preserving this capability until the mid-2020s will require continued US investments. A proposed 1,600km range version of the JASSM/LRASM should be made a top priority, as it would allow the bomber to launch strikes beyond the range of land-based PLA fighters. Proposals to put external pylons on the B-1B could increase its JASSM/LRASM carriage to 36 missiles. New 200km AAMs under development by the USAF also deserve high priority, as they can also be carried by bombers for self-defense.
Taiwan’s ability to counter PLA bombers can be greatly enhanced by the US sale of KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, and early sale of new 200km range US AAMs. A small number of tankers, four or so, could extend the range of Taiwan’s F-16 fighters, forcing H-6K bombers to loiter off of Taiwan beyond the range of their cruise missiles.
Finally, as CCP-PLA intimidation, especially bomber intimidation, could continue to increase in 2021, Taiwan and the US should consider their own brand of counter-intimidation. They could build scores of large 200 meter-long plastic card and wood, very lightweight ships configured to simulate invading PLA Navy or civilian ferry ships. Repeatedly sinking 50 of these target ships with two B-1B or B-52H bombers during multiple highly publicized exercises could go far to convince Xi Jinping and the PLA that an invasion of Taiwan will result in their ships and soldiers meeting a quick watery grave.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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