- According to the most recent wargames organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington lost the war for Taiwan .
- The Chinese Navy outshined that of the USA.
- By making China’s maritime assets the main target for the U.S. bomber force, USA can fare better.
The wargames planned long before the most recent Taiwan crisis and set in 2026, add to decades of analyses of the Taiwan scenario conducted at war colleges and think tanks on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Scheduled to be written up later this year, the games have reinforced at least one previously well-known conclusion: should the United States attempt to fight the battle for Taiwan relying mainly on military forces located west of Guam, U.S. losses will be severe.
Limitations of the Stand-In Force
U.S. stand-in forces, those based inside China’s missile range, are an important political commitment to America’s exposed allies in the region. At the same time, U.S. policymakers have overwhelmingly favored the acquisition of short-range tactical aircraft. The U.S. Air Force’s fighter-to-bomber ratio is currently 15.8-to-1 as a result, a stand-in force is one of the few choices available to commanders. China’s “counter-intervention” force structure is built around a long-range sensor-missile battle network that is designed to lure in and destroy high-profile U.S. forces such as aircraft carrier strike groups. But China, like the United States, is launching new, distributed, resilient, and redundant imaging and communication satellite constellations to support its long-range sensor-missile battle network.
According to the annual Military Balance database from the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Chinese air force and navy operate over 200 bombers and roughly 1,400 fighter-attack aircraft, forces that have doubled over the past decade and continue to grow. Given this missile power, it is little surprise that multiple iterations of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ wargame predicted the destruction of two U.S. aircraft carriers and their carrier air wings. These wargames are not the first to show such results. Chinese planners hope that tens of thousands of U.S. casualties inflicted over just a few days will result in demoralization and political defeat.
Going toe to toe
The U.S. bomber force, even at just 141 aircraft, is a good matchup against the Chinese navy and China’s overall maritime capacity. The U.S. office of Naval Intelligence forecasts that by 2030 China’s maritime force will total over 800 warships, quasi-military coast guard cutters, and large “maritime militia” ships. Against this, U.S. bombers would be a stand-off force, operating from many bases largely outside the Chinese military’s reach and supported by the Air Force’s large and widely distributed airborne tanker force. The bomber force would begin its attacks with long-range munitions, which reduce the risk to the aircraft themselves. For example, if the bomber force flew roughly one-third of its aircraft each day, it could deliver about 800 long-range missiles daily at fixed and moving maritime targets.
Once the entire stockpile of stand-off missiles is depleted, it would be too dangerous for the non-stealthy B-52H and B-1B bombers to continue the counter-maritime campaign west of the First Island Chain. But America’s stealthy bombers could continue with shorter-range munitions. How many stealthy bombers will the Air Force have in 2026? There are the 20 B-2As, perhaps 16 of which would be coded for combat. And there is the new B-21 Raider. This means the U.S. military will have at least ten or fifteen B-21s assembled by 2026. One open-source analysis projected 20 B-21s on hand by 2027. By one estimate, that could yield over 300 1,000-pound precision weapon strikes per day against Chinese maritime targets.
Arms and Ammunitions
Under current budget plans, the U.S. Air Force will have about 7,000 joint air-to-surface stand-off missiles and 149 long-range anti-ship missiles on hand in 2026. Launching 800 missiles per day would consume the entire stockpile of these long-range missiles in under ten days. The Air Force is also acquiring the Small Diameter Bomb II, or “Storm Breaker.” This is a lightweight munition designed to precisely strike moving targets up to forty miles away, day and night, in all weather, while overcoming enemy countermeasures. The service plans to have 6,023 of these weapons ready by 2026.
Mark Gunzinger of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies has proposed a new affordable mid-range munition that would allow the Air Force’s stealthy bombers to attack targets at a safe range from air defenses. With a better munitions plan, the Air Force’s bombers would be a strong matchup against China’s maritime forces.
Destroying China’s maritime power would end China’s capacity for conquest in the western Pacific. Yet the Chinese navy is not an Air Force priority, despite its vulnerability to U.S. bombers. Civilian policymakers should make China’s maritime forces a top targeting priority for the U.S. bomber force. First, they should require Air Force officials to explain how their munitions strategy supports deterrence by denial against Chinese forces. Following that, they could demand the Air Force fund the rapid development of Mark Gunzinger’s affordable mid-range munition and acquire, say, 2,000 long-range anti-ship missiles, even if this means acquiring fewer joint air-to-surface standoff missiles. More broadly, policymakers should recognize that the sensor-missile military-technical revolution has transformed the Indo-Pacific into a military theater where long-range aerospace power dominates.
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