Mark Collins – USAF “Officers Give New Details for F-35 in War With China”

Further to this post on the difficulties carrier-based USN F-35Cs would have in a war with China (“range, range, range” amongst other things),

Making the Case For the Eagle’s Carriers vs the Dragon: NOT

this air force concept of operations for a very thinly-disguised war with China strikes me as pretty darn complicated (it’s amazing to me that such military planning vs a country not officially a US adversary–yet–should be made public; but the US services can be awfully frank). Could all the advance arrangements necessary be in place in time (e.g. fuel and munitions at all those bases)? Would the foreign governments concerned go along? And what about range to targets, especially those beyond just the coast of the mainland?

For the first time, key officers lay out how they’d deploy the stealth F-35 and F-22 in an all-out war with China.

U.S. Air Force officials for the first time said publicly how they’re planning to use the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in a war with China.

The bottom line: a lot needs to change in the way the Air Force uses its warplanes in battle.

“If you put a fourth-[generation F-15 or F-16 fighter] in there, they’re gonna die,” said Maj. Gen. Jeff Harrigian, who is finishing up a tour at the Pentagon where he has been building the plans for integrating the F-35 throughout the Air Force. He and Col. Max Marosko, the deputy director for air and cyberspace operations at Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii [website here], detail how the F-35 would be unleashed in a new report published Thursday by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“In our minds, what this comes down to is the ability to kill and survive,” Harrigian said.

Air Force officials frequently talk about how the advanced technology on the F-35 and other jets will give it an edge on the battlefield, but this report offers an unprecedented detail from a senior officer of how the plane could be used in war.

In the fictitious war of 2026 they present, the enemy tries to jam radar and radio signals, allowing only stealthy planes like F-22 and F-35 fighters and B-2 and B-21 [now under development with contract to Northrop] bombers to fly safely and strike targets, which are guarded by mobile surface-to-air missiles.

The Pentagon would spread its fighter jets around the Pacific in small numbers to military and civilian airfields, some as far as 1,000 miles from the battlefield [emphasis added, those planes would need quite a bit of tanker support to get there and back, 2,000 miles round-trip], to prevent enemy ballistic and cruise missiles from delivering a devastating knock-out blow to a base [see “China’s Weapons on Parade…”–would dispersal be enough protection?]. Today, the Pentagon tends to concentrate the majority of its planes at regional super bases.

“During the initial days of the conflict, F-35s occasionally return to their bases – only to discover several are heavily damaged from enemy missile attacks,” Harrigian and Marosko write, in their warplay. Those F-35s must divert to civilian airfields [emphasis added]. By this time, the F-22 and F-35 won’t need air traffic controllers as their high-tech computers will guide them to runways, even in bad weather…

The report does not name China as the enemy, instead saying the fictitious war takes place in “a key region abroad,” where in one detailed scenario an F-35 must divert to a base in Australia…

The Air Force needs to deploy its F-22s and F-35s more quickly from bases in the United States since the enemy could move assets around the battlefield, Marosko said. And when they deploy, they must do it with less equipment and fewer people [emphasis added, good luck]…

The timing of the report is notable as the Air Force is expected between August and December to declare its first squadron of F-35s ready for war

[Well, sort of. Scroll down here to see the limited weapons load: “Q: What weapons capability will the F-35 have achieved at IOC?“. Plus the software is still not truly ready, see at end: “After IOC is declared, what are the next steps for the F-35?… system upgrades, such as Block 3F for full warfighter capability [now set for 2018]…”]…

All that basing thinking has rather a Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson feel about it to me.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


6 thoughts on “Mark Collins – USAF “Officers Give New Details for F-35 in War With China””

  1. Northeast China, and east central China near the coasts, would be in range of F-35As from South Korea without much tanking if any, as would be east central from Okinawa. Planes based in Honshu, Japan, would have a much longer route to fly to either area.

    The fighter’s combat radius is at “Specifications” towards bottom here (good webpage on the program):

    “Combat Radius: 590+ nm/679+ miles (1,093+ km) on internal fuel [stealthy with no external weapons]”

    By the way the photo included with the post is of a USN F-35C (folding wings for carrier use).

    Mark Collins

  2. A friend familiar with defence matters disagrees with me about basing, and adds quite a bit on tankers themselves”

    “I don’t see the basing concept as makeshift. In fact it isn’t much different from what NORAD planned in the Cold War or what NATO planned in Europe. These arrangements are quietly agreed in advance. The large bases will be well defended against ballistic and cruise missiles but some will leak through, possibly with CW. Dispersal is prudent.

    Tanker support is an issue. Tankers are always among the chief deficiencies noted in war games and exercises. The KC-46 may have to be acquired in numbers almost as great as the KC-135, many of which are good for a few decades yet. The USAF chose the KC-46 because its smaller size than the Airbus 330 MRTT would allow more dispersed airports to be used–more is better once attrition in combat starts. If the USAF needs to speed up KC-46 production, they have ample resources at Boeing and sub-contractors to double annual production.”

    The KC-46 for its part is still having development problems:

    Mark Collins

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