25 December 2005

Stopping Warships With Planes.

I find it interesting that Taiwan is making a major investment in modifying inexpensive, ground based, training aircraft for use in carrying anti-ship missiles. The goal is to defeat an incoming Chinese war fleet in the event of an invasion.

I've frequently wondered, along the same lines, if the U.S. hasn't invested too much in using surface combatants, which are expensive, slow to marshal to the theater of operations, relatively vulnerable and put many lives at risk if hit, to carry out this mission, and too few land based aircraft (deploying from places like Guam and Okinawa) for this task.

Ground based aircraft can't be deterred by Chinese or North Korean submarines, and like surface warships, can launch their anti-ship missiles against enemy ships from hundreds of miles away, limiting the effectiveness of anti-aircraft weapons against the ground based aircraft themselves. Moreover, even a few days warning can allow U.S. commanders to marshal hundreds of aircraft at locations like Guam or Okinawa from bases anywhere in the world, while it could take considerably longer to get ships deployed to the scene from places like the Atlantic Coast or Middle East. Even so called, "surprise attacks" are rarely total surprises -- usually there is a long stream of bellicose rhetoric that precedes them.

Getting the aircraft in the air and launching the missiles from a little further way does mean a delay. Aircraft would still be reinforcements to surface ships in a truly surprise attack, operating perhaps half an hour to two hours from the time they are ordered to mobilize, but since very few ships travel at even 40 miles an hour, and it is hard to mobilize a huge flotilla of invading ships without satellites noticing it, the downsides of potential delay aren't necessarily as dramatic as they seem, and launching from a hundred or two miles further away costs only seconds of response times as the missiles themselves travel so fast.

A surprise attack on the airbase poses problems similar to a surprise attack on a defense fleet, of course, but invading a distant military base in a foreign country definitely makes the prospectis of an invasion higher risk since it expands to conflict to new and powerful opponents, like Japan.


Anonymous said...

invading a distant military base in a foreign country definitely makes the prospectis of an invasion higher risk since it expands to conflict to new and powerful opponents, like Japan.

Isn't this exactly the problem with relying more on air power? Countries like Japan (even with the hawkish Koizumi in power) don't want a larger American presence, and they definitely don't want to be frontline states the next time an irresponsible American president engages in brinksmanship.

And that's east Asia. The problem is even worse in the middle East, where no one except Kuwait and Qatar seems willing to host U.S. bases. (Obviously Iraq doesn't have much of a choice right now.) After that, you're looking at Diego Garcia, which is too far away to be useful.

Looks like there are some practical diplomatic limitations on what the US can do. If, like Taiwan, we were worried about a direct seaborne invasion of the homeland, then the strategy of building lots of cheap air power would make a great deal of sense. But we are still trying to act as a colonial power, so cheap defensive weapons are not on the table.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Fair points. Unlike Taiwan, I don't really see us using cheap trainers, of course. I would see us putting quite a few anti-ship missiles on something like a converted 747 or 777, with long range and an ability to stay aloft for long periods of time and dozens of missile capacities. In the Pacific, Guam might be the best base for them, in the Middle East, either Diego Garcia or Avianno, Italy would be likely launch points (although Italy will be out of the question if we keep pissing them off with our rendition and secret prison policies).