Tough challenge for Air Power in South China Sea

The RAAF is in the midst of a large-scale replacement program but the strategic goalposts have just changed mid-game.  Two major events have driven this change: the development of new island airbases by China in the South China Sea and the recent Australian government decision to require the RAAF to be more involved in the security of maritime South East Asia.  Taken together, there are now real shortcomings in the planned Air Force future force structure.

In recent decades, the success of the ASEAN regional grouping has meant there has been little likelihood of regional interstate conflict.  China however has now deliberately inserted itself deep into the ASEAN region.  This move, accompanied by frequently shrill and aggressive commentary from Chinese Communist Party media outlets, has raised regional security concerns.

In the South China Sea, China has built six large islands: three substantial airbases and three sizeable electronic surveillance installations.  In so doing, China has effectively moved its territory some 1100km south, closer to Australia and deep into ASEAN’s geographic heart.

Such expansionism is particularly worrying given recent Chinese military developments.  Chinese airpower is being rapidly transformed through a major decade-long modernisation program that, as President Xi Jinping directed, is now accelerating.

China’s air force has moved from having obsolete 1950s-technology equipment to today operating modern combat aircraft and highly-advanced Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems.  The continuing development of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) means that by 2020 it will operate about 1100 modern fighters. By 2030, USAF Chief General Mark Welsh considers the PLAAF will be larger than the USAF, and well-equipped.

China is further modernising its long range SAM force to include the indigenous 200 km range HQ-9 and the Russian 400 km range S-400 system.  In being able to engage at long range, the PLAAF’s land based SAMs can now be an important part of the extended air superiority battle, not just solely of use for point defence.

With its modern fighter force and advanced SAMs, China can now deploy to its new South China Sea airbases an air combat force larger and more capable than any ASEAN air force.  In ASEAN, Singapore’s air force (examined elsewhere in this edition) is the most capable operating some 100 modern fighters, allowing a surge of some 50-75 fighters in a crisis situation.  With more than 1000 modern fighters available however, China could readily deploy 75-100 aircraft across the three islands if required. Moreover, China’s deployable SAMs could provide high-quality area air defence while its fighters struck elsewhere.  In contrast Singapore would need to retain a sizeable fighter force for home air defence purposes.

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