Sea Denial Over Recto Bank Using Aircraft-based Anti-Ship Missiles

A JAS-39C Gripen. Photo courtesy of Airwolfhound thru Flickr.
A JAS-39C Gripen. Photo courtesy of Airwolfhound thru Flickr.

This is the third of my series to try to find ways to keep China’s dirty hands off our valuable property at Recto Bank, and this time I am considering the use of AIRCRAFT as an Anti-Ship Missile (AShM) platform. Aircraft does have a couple of advantages over Land or Ship based platforms, one of which is that they are less dependent on Surveillance aircraft for targeting information as each can carry its own radar. Of course, a specialized Surveillance aircraft will still have a better, longer-ranged radar than most attack aircraft, but attack aircraft will still be able to find targets at much longer ranges than ships owing to their ability to fly at higher elevations which allows them to have a much further Radar Horizon.

Aircraft are also much faster than ships, around 10-20 times faster making them much better for hit-and-run tactics since they go in and out of an attack quickly. And unlike land-based platforms, aircraft will not be tied to a single-source for AShMs as there are a number of them that are available in the western world with sufficiently long-range.

’Aircraft Requirement’
A standard-sized attack aircraft can carry two to six AShMs, but even with six AShMs an aircraft still won’t be able to match the firepower of a ship which can carry as much as 16 AShMs, even more for larger ships. Bomber-sized aircraft can carry as much as 16 AShMs also, but I don’t think we will be going into them due to their higher fuel, maintenance and airfield requirements, so for now I will limit this topic to only standard-sized attack aircraft.

Assuming a standard load of four AShMs per aircraft and that we will need at least three missiles to neutralize each of the 62 major Surface Naval Combatants of China’s West Philippine Sea (WPS) fleet, then we will need at least 46 aircraft. Allowing a fighter escort with a 2-1 ratio (two attack aircraft for one fighter aircraft), we will need another 23 aircraft as fighter cover, meaning an overall total of 69 aircraft.

However, because of their speed aircraft are able to re-attack a target again in just a matter of hours, hence it may be possible to have even less aircraft if we assume that we will do the attack in at least two batches. So for example, we use less aircraft, say only 24 attack aircraft with twelve fighter aircraft as air cover means only 36 aircraft per strike. Allowing for a 33% combat attrition rate (i.e. aircraft shot down) after the first attack then we will need an additional twelve fighter/attack aircraft in reserve for the second strike for a total of only 48 aircraft required overall.

’Airfield Vulnerability’
The biggest vulnerability of aircraft are their dependency on AIRFIELDS, which are FIXED and therefore easier to attack. Ships and Land Vehicles can operate independently from their bases for a much, much longer period of time than aircraft, making them less vulnerable that way. China has a number of very long range (500 km+) Cruise Missiles that can be launched from Submarines or Aircraft and are designed to hit fixed targets like airbases.

Adequate defense should be provided for these airfields because if they are put out of action, our aircraft would then be useless. The best way to actively defend against these low-flying, terrain-hugging Cruise Missiles are the combination of long-endurance Surveillance Aircraft, Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) and Data Link capability. The airborne Surveillance aircraft can detect Cruise Missiles flying close to the ground at a distance then direct SAMs thru datalink to intercept.

Aside from active measures, passive countermeasures like the use of HARDENED SHELTERS that resist damage to protect our aircraft are also important, as are good, fast Engineering teams that can quickly fix damaged runways after an attack.

’Rough Field Capability’
Another way to reduce airfield vulnerability is to have many smaller, less developed airfields or even highways as alternate runways, but there are a couple of issues with this as well. First would be Aircraft Capability, the aircraft will need to have rough field capability in the first place, and in this regard aircraft like the JAS-39E Gripen1 will have an advantage since they are DESIGNED to have that capability. But even if the Gripen can land/take-off from rough airfields, it needs to be confirmed if they really are able to carry a FULL PAYLOAD while taking off from such conditions. If they cannot, then their capability to successfully carry out an attack will be lessened.

A rough airfield puts more stress on Landing Gears, hence possibly the Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW) and therefore payload will be compromised. Another issue is FRICTION, a rougher surface will offer more resistance hence for the same amount of engine thrust an aircraft may not be able to travel as fast, which in turn could affect MTOW/Payload.

An example of a Hardened Aircraft Shelter in the Czech Republic. Photo courtesy of flightlog thru Wikipedia Commons.
An example of a Hardened Aircraft Shelter in the Czech Republic. Photo courtesy of flightlog thru Wikipedia Commons.

Another issue will be LOGISTICS. The Air Force Support Group will need to have MOBILE EQUIPMENT that can FUEL, ARM and MAINTAIN these aircraft from different sites, and it needs MANY of them as smaller airfields and/or runways won’t be able to support a couple of dozen aircraft at one site, hence the aircraft will have to be dispersed at multiple sites.

The Chinese Navy or the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does have Anti Air Warfare (AAW) ships than can threaten an aerial maritime strike force, but unfortunately for them (and fortunately for us) their SAMs only have ranges of well under 200 km, unlike western ship-based SAMs like the SM-2ER2 and SM-33 which has a 360-500 km range. As a result, western AShMs with around 200 km ranges would still provide aircraft a good stand-off range against the PLAN’s ships. Aircraft also has the advantage of being able to duck down under the ship’s Radar Horizon to escape after firing their missiles, making it a little bit harder for the enemy Surveillance Aircraft and SAMs to track and pursue them.

Land-based enemy aircraft will be also be a threat to a strike force, but probably not as much because the nearest airbase to Recto Bank from China is at the Hainan province which is around 1,000 km away. Even if they can maintain a Mach two or 2,400 kph speed throughout that distance (which is doubtful), it will still take their Flankers around 25 minutes to reach Recto Bank. China can try to maintain a Combat Air Patrol (CAP)4 over that area, but the problems will be considerable because aircraft generally are not very efficient at guarding an area for a long time since they can only be airborne in a matter of hours at a time.

For example, assuming with External Fuel Tanks and cruising at its most economical speed that China’s Flanker aircraft can loiter for around four hours over Recto Bank, to cover 24 hours they will need six shifts, or that’s at least six aircraft needed for a SINGLE DAY. And that is for only one aircraft on station, if you want two aircraft on station, that means twelve aircraft per day; three aircraft on station, 36 aircraft per day, and so on and so forth. So even if they can maintain a 24/7 CAP coverage, the aircraft on station won’t likely be in significant numbers enough to threaten much an attack.

The biggest threat though will come from CARRIER-BASED AIRCRAFT. China’s Aircraft Carrier the Liaoning, for example, can position itself within a hundred kilometers from the area it intends to protect, and that way any enemy aircraft within that 100 km will already be within the range of its aircraft’s long-range Air to Air Missiles as soon as it takes off. The Liaoning carries two dozen fighter aircraft for defense, but I don’t think this will be enough to defeat a maritime strike by enemy aircraft … unless of course they are able to put more aircraft on the Liaoning, or get more Aircraft Carriers.

’Aircraft and Missiles’
We should use only one type of aircraft for both the fighter and attack role for easier logistics, and this is not an issue since almost all aircraft nowadays are “multi-role”, meaning they can easily switch from one role (as Fighter or Attack aircraft) to another. The AShMs used should be as long as possible, and again this is not much of an issue since most large, air-launched western AShMs nowadays have ranges of around 200 km, which I feel would be sufficient enough.

As for which aircraft we should get, I think the best option for us would be to go for single-engine aircraft due to their lower Operating Costs, and the Gripen would be a favorite here because of its inherent ability to use rough airfields and its low maintenance requirements. An F-16V Fighting Falcon5 also won’t be so bad, although we will be giving up a little bit of that rough airfield and low maintenance capability.

The last “real world” price (i.e., including Integrated Logistics Support or ILS and weapons) of the Gripen E when it won the contract for Brazil in 2013 was worth USD 125 million per aircraft,6 although this year the manufacturer Saab says it “expects” to halve the manufacturing price for the Gripen E for future orders.7 IF this is TRUE, then assuming that 2/3 of the USD 125 million price is the manufacturing price, then the estimated future price of a Gripen E would probably be around USD 80 million per plane.

’Parting Shot’
For Aircraft-based AShMs, the Pros and Cons are:
* Much less dependent on Surveillance Aircraft for OTH Targeting support;
* Ability to conduct strikes from the air and at a faster manner means more effective and better chance of survivability;
* More varied source for missile systems
* Dependence on Airbases makes it more vulnerable to pre-emptive or counter-attack;
* Higher Acquisition, Operation and Maintenance costs than land-based platforms due to the need for a more sophisticated and complex platform;

IMHO, Aircraft platforms have a better chance of conducting a successful attack against China’s fleet than land or ship-based platforms because of their speed and aerial advantage, but they are also more vulnerable. If China can neutralize our airbases and we are not able to cope or find an alternative to launch our aircraft with a full maritime strike payload, then our capability will be blunted. But if we can keep our airbases open and/or have other runway alternatives, then we will have an effective weapon to deny the Chinese armada’s access to Recto Bank.

A rough estimate to the possible cost of this project would be something like this:
– 48 Multi-Role Aircraft @ USD 80 million each = USD 3.84 billion.
– Various Surveillance aircraft for OTH targeting support and Airbase defense = USD 750 million
– Hardened Aircraft shelters and Mobile Equipment Support = USD 500 million
– SAM systems for Airbase defense = USD 500 million
* Total would be USD 5.59 billion.

An F-16C Fighting Falcon. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
An F-16C Fighting Falcon. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


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