The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked fears in the West that China could pull off a similar military stunt against Taiwan, which could also threaten the security of its ally, Japan, and warrant its intervention.
General Kenneth Wilsbach, Commander of the Pacific Air Forces, recently argued that it would be considerably more appropriate to deploy “attritable” unmanned aircraft against China rather than high-end stealth fighter jets such as F-35s or F-22s. He was speaking at an online interaction hosted by the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies.
“Attritable” is a design feature that trades reliability and maintenance for low-cost, reusable, and eventually throw-away weaponry.
Armed forces are looking for advanced unmanned aircraft that can be deployed repeatedly and, ideally, never be shot down. It becomes possible to tolerate losses while preserving combat power by expanding the number of combat aircraft in the fleet, according to European Security and Defence.
When asked how the USAF would address the capacity shortage with only a few hundred F-22 Raptors, about 150 F-35s, 10 B-2 Bombers, and a small number of C-17s ready and operational at any given time, General Wilsbach stated that the planning is based on the resources already available, with the assumption that more resources will not be arriving.
He went on to say that China’s ability to defend its nation is very robust. It has a very strong Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) system in the East and South China Seas.
According to the top military official, the best choice for the US Air Force in the event of a conflict with China would be to amass attritable systems — it could be decoys or inhabited UAVs — to exhaust the Chinese defense since they would have more targets to fight against and no idea what that air-borne asset is.
“It would give you an advantage because they will use up their resources shooting things that you don’t care that they shoot down. So, that would be a capacity that I’m very interested in as we could go into the future being able to amass targets for them to shoot at but the ones that we want them to shoot. The ones that follow that could be airpower or ammunition that creates an effect that we so choose,” said General Wilsbach.
The remarks point to a strategy in which the US Air Force’s fighter jets are not to be used directly in the conflict, but rather to follow inconsequential or less significant UAVs that the General refers to as attritable with the goal of exhausting and breaking down the PLA’s A2/AD capacity and then leading an offensive of choice with airpower that includes F-35s, F-22 Raptors, B-2 Bombers, and other attack aircraft.
The United States has also been strengthening its defense in the Pacific, especially in Guam Island and Australia. China has nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in its inventory, like the formidable DF-26 that could strike the American assets in case of a potential conflict. The US had earlier sent F-35s and F-22 Raptors to Australia, as previously reported by the EurAsian Times.
To discourage prospective Chinese military aggression and threats from North Korea, the US had reportedly decided to send more fighter jets to Australia, including F-22 Raptors, F-35 Lightning II, and B2 stealth bombers in November last year.
The US Army also recently conducted training with a hypersonic missile that might be sent to Guam to defend Taiwan. It has performed a series of ground maneuvers with the first prototype of the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) system, codenamed ‘Dark Eagle’.
When asked if the US Air Force should focus more on autonomy, unmanned aircraft, and varied sizes of aircraft in its inventory, the General responded affirmatively, deliberating on the ability to amass various sorts of aircraft.
He explained that losing unmanned aircraft would have far less impact on the Air Force than losing a manned aircraft. However, the decision was to be made based on the nature of these unmanned ‘attritable’ aircraft and how exquisite they may be. They could be built as exquisite as an F-35 or as advanced as an NGAD, but the cost would be prohibitive.
General Wilsbach suggests that the uninhabited aircraft could be produced as less exquisite, slightly more attritable so that the Air Force could have more of them — the more of these that the Air Force can field, the more targets will China be forced to engage with using their resources.
All these assets will have some kind of capability, whether it is a sensor, a weapon, a jammer and they should swarm well so they should communicate with one another and collaborate not just among themselves but also with the manned platform that they are supporting.
Some of them may be stealthy, some of them should be conventional, because if it’s stealthy, and they can’t see them, then they can’t shoot at them,” he says. “So there should be a mix of all of this as we go forward to present many more dilemmas than they can handle at any given time.”
He further stated that as has been observed in exercises, amassing such aircraft against a certain target implies that while some may be shot down as China has really good defenses, they still won’t be able to shoot them all down, and “it’s the weapon that creates the final effect that counts”. All these unmanned assets would be supporting the manned assets.