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The U.S. Marine Corps' Plan to Operate Fighter Jets Near China's Coasts Without Airbases or Carriers - Can it Work?

February 17th - 2018

The U.S. Military has in recent years seen its once undisputed dominance in the Western Pacific decline as a result of China's rapid military modernisation and induction of several cutting edge and highly formidable weapons systems. The Chinese network of islands hosting advanced HQ-9 SAMs and J-11 air superiority fighters, its development of lethal long range anti ship systems such as the DF-21D, and its vast arsenal of advanced ballistic missiles capable of destroying U.S. facilities across the Pacific from Hawaii to Busan, all seriously hinder the U.S. military's ability to project power in the region. With airbases vulnerable to being destroyed in the opening hours of conflict, tanker aircraft vulnerable to destruction at extreme ranges by platforms such as the PL-15 air to air missile, and carriers unable to operate within 1,450km of the Chinese coast due to the DF-21D, well beyond the strike range of carrier based fighters, prospects for the U.S. military successfully deploying combat aircraft to the region other than long range strategic bombers appear slim.

In response to the deterioration of the U.S. position in the Pacific, the Marine Corps has developed a strategy to operate combat aircraft in the Pacific without using either airfields or carriers allowing it to deploy its most advanced fighters within what U.S. planners term China's Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) bubble. By relying on the F-35B, the Marines' short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) platform, the corps hopes to operate fighters from makeshift airfields and even minor atolls across the Pacific. David Berke, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, stated regarding the usefulness of the Marines' new fighter in the Pacific: “You can fly the F-35B literally anywhere. If your traditional places of operation are unavailable the F-35B can be there.... Find me 600 feet of flat surface anywhere in the world, and I can land there." He compared the F-35B to the A-10 warthog in its ability to operate from short runways or dirt roads. The Marines could potentially use their V-22 Osprey and CH-53 helicopters to airlift supplies and set up makeshift bases.

While the Marines' strategy is unique, there are several severe flaws mainly relating to the F-35B's capabilities which make it almost entirely infeasible. The first is that while the F-35B was compared to the renowned and hardy A-10 Warthog in its ability to use makeshift runways, the comparison ends there. Indeed, in their other characteristics the two platforms are if anything complete opposites. The A-10 is well suited to frontline service and could very well operate from makeshift bases with minimal support, whereas the F-35B is with the exception of the F-22 the most delicate and high maintenance fighter in service anywhere in the world today. The A-10 has by for the lowest maintenance requirements of any U.S. fighter, whereas the F-35B has the second highest. This means hours spent on the ground for repairs an maintenance for every hour in the air, and a need for constant supplies which would be extremely difficult to deliver in a wartime situation to far flung makeshift bases. Applying the fighter's stealth coating for example, a time consuming process which takes several hours and is done in controlled environments, would be near impossible at a makeshift base out at sea.

Another critical flaw with the Marines' strategy for the F-35B is its very short range, lower than that of any other F-35 variant, and the fighter's resulting inability to reach Chinese targets from Pacific islands and atolls without aerial refuelling - likely several times for each sortie. This completely undermines the intention to deploy them independently of other fixed wing platforms - as with airfields destroyed there likely would be no tankers available to ferry the light fighters to their targets. With the F-35B set to be fielded in relatively small numbers, and lacking in its combat capabilities relative to the other two variants, the fighter will be overwhelmingly outnumbered and very likely outmatched by Chinese platforms - while the U.S. fighters will be beyond the help of reinforcements if operating as the Marines' plan would suggest. The fighter may well be a match for the Chinese J-10, but against a fleet of heavy Chinese air superiority platforms such as the J-11D or Su-35 fielding dedicated anti stealth technologies and carrying several times as many armaments as the small and light American fighter the small advanced guard deployed by the Marines would be quickly destroyed should it be detected within China's A2AD bubble - all of this assuming they have the maintenance and parts to operate at all.

Ultimately with Chinese A2AD capabilities continuing to improve at a rate far faster than those the offensive capabilities of the United States, the country's airspace and surrounding seas are set to remain secure. While inventive, the limitations on the F-35B's capabilities particularly regarding its maintenance requirements make plans to use it to counter China's A2AD highly unlikely to succeed.


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