Diplomatic tensions between the United States and China have risen throughout the developing nuclear predicament on the Korean peninsula, but in the nearby South China Sea, American and Chinese forces have long been staring one another down from either side of the horizon.
The People’s Liberation Army’s massive modernization and reorganization effort, which has included the launch of nearly twenty new warships in the past two years, hasn’t gone on in a vacuum. It could be reasonably argued that China’s new military strategy echoes their diplomatic one: to replace the United States as the premier global military, diplomatic, and economic power. The expansion of both their claims of sovereignty and military presence throughout the heavily trafficked South China Sea is one facet of that broader concept, with the opening of the nation’s first overseas military base in Djibouti, Africa serving as further support for the theory.
Of course, the United States hasn’t been taking this possibility lying down. Since President Trump took office in January, the U.S. Navy has been increasing their Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOP) throughout the region, sailing to within the internationally recognized 12 nautical mile limit of land masses China has laid claim to as a symbol of America’s unwillingness to recognize the Asian state’s claim over what has long been considered international waters beyond that barrier.
If these tensions were to ever boil over into actual conflict, however, the United States could find themselves at a significant disadvantage in the Pacific. Despite having a larger and more powerful military, the U.S.’ global footprint likely would not permit bringing the full weight of the American war machine to bear in the region. Further, China’s massive stockpile of anti-ship cruise missiles, with estimated ranges that exceed 800 miles, would hinder the use of America’s most powerful military assets: the nation’s fleet of eleven super-carrier strike groups.
Most carrier launched aircraft in the U.S. arsenal have an outer range of around 550 miles, meaning sailing close enough to launch attacks on Chinese territory would put the nation’s Nimitz and Ford class carriers well within the range of their anti-ship arsenal. Although the U.S. Navy employs the Aegis missile defense system, China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles would follow a nearly horizontal flight path at speeds in excess of Mach 5, rendering most traditional missile defenses nearly useless. However, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, a former F-35 squadron commander, believes the United States is already developing a capability that could circumvent this capability gap: building what amounts to pit stops for the Marine Corps’ F-35 variant within areas denied to carrier groups by China’s anti-ship missiles.
“You can fly the F-35B literally anywhere,” Berke said. “If your traditional places of operation are unavailable, the F-35B can be there.”
According to Berke, the F-35B’s short runway requirements make it uniquely suited for field-expedient resupplies akin to pit stops you might have seen in NASCAR and Formula 1 racing. Using V-22 Ospreys and CH-53 Sea Stallions, the U.S. could send support troops and equipment to any mostly flat stretch of territory, where F-35Bs could land vertically and be resupplied with the jet still running. Once fully equipped with fuel and munitions, the Joint Strike Fighter could take off on a short runway and get back in the fight, all without leaving China’s denied-access bubble created by their anti-ship missiles.
“Find me 600 feet of flat surface anywhere in the world and I can land there,” said Berke.
The Marine Corps has already tested the F-35Bs ability to land on sloped surfaces, and last year, the Marine Corps started training for both “hot loading” (loading new ordnance on a recently landed and still running F-35) and “aviation-delivered ground refueling,” which is refueling the aircraft using fuel stores delivered by heavy payload helicopters. It would seem then, that the concept of landing the most advanced and expensive aircraft ever built in the cratered grass patches of a combat zone isn’t simply a theory, but rather something the U.S. Military is already preparing to do.
Whether or not the F-35’s ability to resupply in austere locations will be enough to strategically offset the range-gap created by China’s anti-ship missiles is, of course, subject to debate – and likely will remain that way until the methodology is ever called upon in an actual combat situation. However, Berke seems convinced.
“If you’re looking at warfare two dimensionally, you’re looking at it wrong.” He said. “You don’t beat me in a boxing match cause your arms are longer than mine.”
Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy
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