As analysts decode all the mountains of data from last week’s Zhuhai Air Show, it is becoming clear that China is making big strides in creating weapons designed to push U.S. warships and warplanes farther and farther away from Taiwan.
China’s massive Zhuhai Air Show ended November 13 after a week of displaying thousands of new Chinese developments in everything from small arms to aerial systems to commercial shipping. The show made it clear that China is currently investing a lot of money in developing more powerful missiles, radars and robotic war machines.
The Chinese military used the opportunity to show off maturing systems like its J-20 stealth fighter, which is now being fitted with upgraded engines to replace the original, unimpressive engines. Also on show was China’s medium-sized Y-20 transport plane and its new variant, the YY-20 refueling plane. This new airplane is China’s first attempt at an aerial tanker, and would give PLA Air Force warplanes the ability to fly much farther and longer than before.
Beijing also showed off its range of transport and attack helicopters, from the heavy transport Z-18 to the Z-20 — which looks very much like the U.S.’ Blackhawk — to attack helicopters like the WZ-19 and WZ-10.
The show also had a mock-up of a new “loyal wingman drone” — the FH-97A — that China claims to be developing. A display next to the mock-up showed an animation video of four of the stealth-looking jet drones flying in formation ahead of one J-20 stealth fighter. The video showed the five aerial vehicles communicating via a wireless data link and working together to engage a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. We see the F-22 pursuing the J-20 in a tight turn to get a missile lock, when one of the wingman drones appears from the side and fires a missile that destroys the F-22.
On the airport tarmac outside the show halls, China also showed off a complete-looking jet-powered drone called the Wing Loong 10, which looks like a smaller version of the jet-powered Boeing RQ-4 “Global Hawk” surveillance drone. It is assumed that this drone would be used as an electronic warfare platform, but the manufacturer says it can be armed with air-to-ground and anti-ship missiles.
Also on display was a model of the Wing Loong 3 drone, a propeller powered airframe that looks a lot like the U.S.’ MQ-9 Reaper drone. The drone was shown with a large number of different types of large and small missiles hanging from its long wings. The manufacturer claims the drone has a maximum range of 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles) and can stay aloft for up to 40 hours at a time. If that’s real, this drone would be able to fly far beyond Taiwan and fire multiple long-range air-to-air missiles at positions where U.S. aerial tankers and AWACS planes would be expected to circle during a conflict.
To add to that, China also displayed its new PL-17 long-range air-to-air missiles, which would seem to be ideal for seeking out large and slow aerial targets after being aimed at a specific airspace. Also on display were new radar systems for surface-to-air missiles that China says are advanced enough to target stealth planes.
The PLA Air Force showed off an active H-6K bomber carrying the YJ-21E anti-ship ballistic missile. This hypersonic ship-killer is advertised to fly at Mach 10 and as far as 1,500 kilometers. Some analysts say the missile is China’s most dangerous weapon, as it would threaten U.S. warships far out at sea, if it works as advertised. If it can indeed be fired from an H-6K bomber, it would be able to threaten warships far beyond Taiwan.
Add to these new developments the fact that China has turned the South China Sea south of Taiwan into a sea sprawling with air bases, radars and missile batteries, and it becomes clear that U.S. air and sea-surface weapons are becoming less and less able to get close enough to Taiwan to affect any future conflict.
If half of China’s new weapons work as advertised, Taiwan will need to prepare a strategy to counter a situation where the U.S. would be limited to using underwater systems and long-range missiles to assist, and where Taiwan’s own large warships and F-16 fighters might not be able to survive for long.
To deter China from using its much larger force to invade Taiwan, Taipei needs to look at creative ways to counter key elements of any invasion strategy. The first key element would be a massive barrage by ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles and cruise missiles. China has been using spies and surveillance for years to find out where Taiwan’s radars, communications towers and anti-ship and anti-air installations are located. If these are destroyed in the first few days of an invasion, Taiwan will be powerless, unless it finds a way to disperse its anti-ship and anti-air assets to diverse hiding spots, on short notice.
These anti-air and anti-ship assets should be broken up into small groups. Each group should be assigned to a specific area, but to ensure survivability in case the list of areas is intercepted by spies, the exact final locations should be decided by the team leaders upon arrival. For example, almost every building in Taiwan has underground parking or basement spaces, which would be perfect places for riding out a missile barrage.
After the initial missile barrage, the second key invasion element would be air superiority. Something as complex and dangerous as an amphibious landing requires a high level of air superiority. Air superiority would also be required to finish off all effective resistance from the air, via a massive airborne bombing campaign and a massive airborne-troop assault. If Taiwan can show it can deny China air superiority (and shoot down troop-carrying planes and helicopters) after the missile barrage, then China would find an amphibious assault much more difficult. Air superiority is key, therefore denying air superiority would be crucial.
Taiwan’s best investment would be to deny post-barrage air superiority by buying thousands of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) like the Stinger. If Taipei could create a large number of MANPADS teams that would spread out across the suburbs, farms and jungles of Taiwan, that fact alone would force China to seriously consider canceling an invasion, because the war in Ukraine has shown how effective these small and easy-to-hide weapons are at denying air superiority. The war in Ukraine has also shown how hard it is for a large military to beat a smaller adversary if the adversary has many MANPADS and uses them in conjunction with other asymmetric-warfare weapons.
The main difference, of course, is that Taiwan is an island, which makes air superiority much more crucial for an invasion, which makes MANPADS much more effective at stopping an invasion in its tracks.
Image: The Wing Loong 3 combat drone / Infinty 0