If China’s Airspace Grab Turns Violent, This Is What Could Happen
Surprising winners and losers in possible Pacific dogfights
Last week China announced a new Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, basically insisting it’s in charge of the airspace over the disputed Senkaku islands claimed by Japan.
Japan and the United States said they would not recognize the ID zone—and promptly sent in warplanes to underscore the point. U.S. B-52 bombers flew over the Senkakus, practically inviting a Chinese intervention, but Beijing’s planes stayed on the ground.
Two days later, the Chinese air force flew J-11B and Su-30 fighters and a KJ-2000 radar plane into the zone.
With tensions mounting, I decided to see what might happen if the maneuvers escalated into actual combat. In my scenario, played out in the ultra-realistic computer game Command: Modern Naval/Air Operations, Beijing decides to teach Tokyo a lesson … and opens fire on the Japanese planes.
When three of the world’s most high-tech air arms meet in simulated battle, the results might surprise you.
China plans to ambush one of Japan’s air patrols—a P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and an accompanying pair of F-15J Eagle fighters—as it makes its daily flight through the Ryukyu and Senkaku islands, hundreds of miles south of mainland Japan.
The southernmost islands in Japan’s archipelago, the sparsely-populated Ryukyus and Senkakus are also the closest to China. Japan has limited options in defending them and the daily flight is both a presence mission and a reassurance to the local population.
If the attack on the Orion is successful and the opportunity presents itself, the Chinese could also shoot down an E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft orbiting southwest of Okinawa. The destruction of four planes and the deaths of as many as 21 aircrew would be a great loss for Japan.
The Chinese air force plans to send up three groups of planes. The first, with four J-11B fighters, will try to take out Japan’s F-15 escorts, leaving the Orion patrol plane defenseless.
The second Chinese group, composed of four J-10 multi-role fighters, will then dart in and shoot down the Orion—and potentially also the Hawkeye.
Providing radar coverage and command and control will be the third group, with a KJ-2000 airborne early warning aircraft flanked by fighter escorts. The early warning group will stay out of the battle zone, instead holding off the coast of China.
All the Chinese fighters will be fully armed, with the J-11Bs carrying four PL-12 long-range radar-homing missiles plus four PL-9 short-range infrared-homing missiles. The J-10s will carry two of each munition.
The Japan Air Self Defense Force has recently begun fighter escorts of patrols in the area, protecting the daily Maritime Self Defense Force P-3 flight with a pair of F-15Js.
A separate pair of F-15Js is patrolling directly over the inhabited Ryukyus. The fighters are part of 204 Hikotai, a squadron based in Okinawa.
The F-15Js, not expecting air-to-air combat, are carrying a light weapons load of just two AAM-4 long-range radar missiles plus two AAM-3 short-range IR missiles.
A pair of U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters on temporary rotation in Okinawa are conducting maneuvers southeast of the island. Due to the increased tensions, the F-22s are armed with six AMRAAM long-range missiles and two Sidewinder short-range missiles.
Thanks to the close relationship between the JASDF and the USAF, the Raptors can come to the aid of the Japanese, if necessary.
Despite careful planning, the Chinese air force has a less complete picture of the battle space than it thinks it does. The Chinese are not aware of the second pair of F-15Js or the Raptor flight.
It’s another tense day over the East China Sea as the Japanese P-3 lumbers towards the Senkakus, 50 miles to the west. Two miles distant at the Orion’s eight o’clock are its two F-15J escorts.
The plan is to fly west, overfly the Senkaku islands of Uotsuri and Kuba, then return to Okinawa. The F-15Js have their sensors off, with radar coverage provided by the E-2 radar plane orbiting west of Okinawa.
The Hawkeye picks up several unknown radar contacts in the distance. Eight bogies in three identifiable groups, the closest of which is 120 miles from the Orion.
A Chinese Type 1474 radar signal is coming from one contact, which signals analysts deduce as emanating from a J-11B fighter. Three more contacts are close to the radar source, meaning a possible total of four J-11Bs.
The defenseless Orion immediately turns around and heads for home at full speed. But the big propeller-driven plane can make only 400 miles per hour—too slow to outrun J-11Bs. The F-15Js will have to cover the Orion’s withdrawal until it reaches a safe distance.
The two Japanese fighters turn on their radars and accelerate, heading straight towards the potentially hostile contacts.
With both sides racing towards each other at a combined 1,000 miles per hour, the gap closes pretty quickly. At 56 miles, the closest unknown air group is positively identified as J-11Bs.
At 22 miles, alarms go off in the F-15Js’ cockpits. Missile launches from the opposing warplanes! The Japanese are under attack.
The F-15Js swiftly counterattack. Each Japanese fighter has just two AAM-4 missiles. To maximize their chances of downing a Chinese fighter, the F-15J pilots would want to target only two J-11Bs with two missiles apiece. But right now it’s more important to the Japanese to break up the enemy attack and buy the Orion some time.
They launch one missile at each inbound J-11B, then turn to retreat.
Firing back, the Chinese manage to launch only 10 of their 16 PL-12 missiles before the inbound Japanese missiles force them to take evasive action. The Chinese fighters are unable to fire the last third of their long-range missiles and are soon bobbing and weaving all over the sky to avoid getting shot down.
Still, chances of survival are slim for the F-15Js. Despite being an inferior missile, the Chinese PL-12s have the advantage of numbers. The Eagles take evasive action of their own, activating electronic countermeasures to distract the missiles and bursting clouds of radar-defeating chaff.
Each Chinese missile has a low probability of intercept but there are 10 of them—and all it takes is one hit. A minute apart, both F-15Js wink off radar screens.
In the meantime, the four Japanese AAM-4s down one J-11B, leaving three still flying. The three remaining J-11Bs, followed by four J-10s, roar through the sudden tear in the Japanese air defenses.
Seconds after the Chinese fighters have been identified, the second pair of F-15Js flying near Miyako island turn north to assist their squadron mates. Lighting their afterburners, the Eagles race towards the battle at the speed of sound.
The Eagles turn on their radars to get the Chinese jets’ attention and hopefully lure some of them away. It doesn’t work. The F-15J pilots watch as their comrades disappear from radar.
As the Chinese J-11Bs chase down the Orion, the surviving F-15Js focus their attack, assigning two AAM-4 missiles per J-11B, starting with the lead plane. Two Chinese jets go down in flames.
Out of missiles, the second flight of F-15Js turns for home. They could in theory press the attack with shorter-range IR missiles, but they’re still outnumbered two to five. The odds are not good for the Japanese.
Plus, they know something that the Chinese don’t. The moment the Orion turned to escape, the two American F-22s on a training mission east of Okinawa went on a war footing—and headed towards the raging air battle at around 1,000 miles per hour.
The Chinese are on a collision course with the deadliest fighters ever made.
Despite the Eagles’ best efforts, the Orion is still in danger. At maximum speed, the patrol plane is still slower than the Chinese fighters racing to catch up with it.
But American and Japanese commanders believe the F-22s will tip the battle in their favor. Each Raptor carries six AMRAAM missiles, meaning the Americans have 12 missiles to destroy five Chinese fighters.
The F-22 pilots target two AMRAAMs at each enemy jet. In doing so, they switch on their AN/APG-77 radars—a potentially unnecessary and dangerous move. Active radar helps you target the enemy, but it also betrays your own position.
Incredibly, all six of the AMRAAMs in the first U.S. volley miss their targets. Two of the four missiles in the second volley hit, leaving the Chinese with three fighters. The Americans quickly re-target the Chinese with their last two AMRAAMs and a J-10 fighter goes down in flames.
Now the Chinese are down to two fighters. The American and Japanese commander believe they have won the battle. Then something even more incredible happens: one of the stealthy F-22s explodes.
The allied officers are stunned by this sudden turn of events. They believed in the superiority—the invincibility—of the Raptor. So when the Chinese fired PL-12s at the F-22s, they didn’t think too much of it. The Raptors would beat them. Heck, the non-stealthy Eagles had beaten most of the missiles fired at them.
What they should have stopped to consider is that the Chinese fighters had been able to detect the stealth planes, probably because the Americans had unwisely activated their own radars. While Chinese missiles are decidedly inferior, Beijing’s Russian-designed sensors are pretty good.
And although Chinese missiles have a low kill probability, the J-10s and J-11Bs hurled at least a dozen of them at a single Raptor. One got through.
After action report
The Chinese ambush of the Orion fails. The patrol plane gets away. For the allies, everything—including losing three expensive fighters and possible their pilots—is secondary to defending the P-3 and its 12 crew.
Six out of eight Chinese fighters have been shot down.
For Beijing, poor intelligence is to blame. Chinese commanders were not even aware that the U.S. and Japan had an extra four F-15Js and F-22s in the battle zone.
Still, the Chinese have managed to shoot down the first two Eagles lost in air-to-air combat since the F-15 entered service in the 1970s. And they killed an F-22. The best and priciest fighter ever made.
So what does my simulation of the battle mean for the current situation in the East China Sea? Simply put, China has a chance of pulling off an aerial ambush.
If my scenario is realistic. If the game’s modeling is accurate. If the Chinese are little lucky and if U.S. and Japanese commanders make mistakes. And if the first volley of AMRAAMs misses.
To be sure, those are a lot of ifs.
I approached building the scenario with some trepidation. I asked myself just how the Chinese would go about taking down a Japanese plane.
The JASDF is better-trained than the Chinese air force and at least as well-armed. To have a chance of winning, Beijing would have to overwhelm its enemies with sheer numbers. Hence the order of battle I devised—one that favors the Chinese.
In my defense, China probably can muster more numerous forces in any sudden Pacific showdown.
The U.S. and Japan rely on just two air bases—Naha and Kadena, both in Okinawa—to provide fighter cover for the Senkaku islands. Against that, China has a large number of bases ... and is building more. That’s the advantage of waging war in your backyard.
But numbers aren’t everything. The United States and Japan count on their technological advantage compensating for the smaller sizes of their forces. They’re not necessarily wrong to do so.
The F-22s’ presence in my scenario made all of the difference. Flying at 1,000 miles per hour, the Raptors arrived in the nick of time. The Chinese didn’t know they were there until the Americans unwisely turned on their radars.
This scenario is not meant to exaggerate or glamorize the possibility of armed conflict in the East China Sea. The chances are remote that a shooting war will break out. That said, for years tensions have steadily escalated between China, Japan and the U.S.
Although just a simulation, my skirmish over the Senkakus has brought up some interesting points worth considering. The relative advantages of both sides makes for a compelling argument for either that they just might be successful.
This is not enough to prevent conflict. And if the United States and Japan really want to deter an increasingly aggressive China, they’re going to have to figure out how to bring more airplanes to the fight.
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