How can China handle US stealth fighters like the F-22 and F-35?

Once the F-22s are airborne, there isn’t anything in the PRC’s military arsenal that can touch them. The F-22 has no peer in air to air combat and F-22s flying from their air bases close to China can shut down any airspace they can cover with their range and munitions.

There’s talk about China’s development of the J-20 and J-31 and how they can go toe to toe with the F-22 but this is incorrect in my opinion: These aircraft were not designed to fight other stealth fighters like the F-22. They were built to use their stealth to engage support aircraft like AWACs, Air refuellers, Recon aircraft and non-stealth combat aircraft using their long range missiles and with their stealth being used to hide them from counter retaliation from F-22s and F-35s in the area as much as possible.

In effect, the J-20 and J-31 are stealth so they can operate in the same airspace as a hostile F-22 with their stealth as a protective measure from the F-22’s radar.

The Chinese media and public may offer up certain military capabilities to assure the nation that they have assets comparable to the F-22 for domestic political consumption, but the Chinese military understands well that there is nothing in their arsenal that can threaten an F-22 once it’s airborne. Any non-stealth assets they have will be shot down before they even get close and the stealth assets are too valuable to be thrown against F-22s, they are better used being preserved for missions against the support infrastructure that surrounds the F-22. With the understanding that the performance of the F-22 would degrade overall if too many support aircraft fall victim to long range missiles from PLAAF stealth fighters.

This doesn’t mean that the PRC has nothing in it’s arsenal to go against the F-22. What they do have is just not the PLAAF, it’s the PRC rocket force.

I have been writing about this subject a bit in the past, so I’ll quote from an older answer here:

However, the US lead in stealth has some major problems that should be addressed. The problem is the basing of these stealth fighters. The US has 6 major bases in Japan and 1 in Guam. The USAF does not use the 80–90 airbases that the Japanese air force uses, and this might be because of how the US wants to control access to it’s stealth fighters but also because it has to equip its bases with perform the complex maintenance that it’s stealth fighters require.

So in theory, there’s only 7 total major bases you can place your stealth fighters at where you can control access to them and also do the whole fancy maintenance they require like re-applying coating etc.

That is…not good, because it means the Chinese don’t have to worry about shooting down these stealth fighters. They just need to concentrate their ballistic missile bombardment on those 7 bases with stealth fighters to knock those bases out or at least interdict operations out of them.

The USAF has realized this problem and are trying to see if they can spread the fighters out a bit more to the 90 bases the Japanese operate but it’s still a work in progress.

There is one other thing: There’s something called the “German Disease” where you get trapped in the idea that as long as you make a VERY high quality platform, it’s gonna be worth 10 of the enemy’s platforms and that’s better than matching the enemy head to head. This is very seductive thinking for a wealthier, more technically advanced power. But it means you are fighting a war with platforms you aren’t willing to lose which is not a good proposition.

The F-22 is a bit of a German Disease for the USAF because there’s only like 170 of them left and they aren’t making any more of them. Each F-22 lost is a permanent loss for the USAF and if a war against China drags on and attrition becomes a factor, a lot of these very high quality assets that the USAF isn’t willing to lose will need to be pulled from the theater after a while once their losses reach 33% per squadron. Now, no one has ever fought the US in a conventional war since Vietnam and managed to drag it out.

But if that does happen, and the US is losing say 2 F-22s a day on average from ballistic missile strikes on bases, losses due to accidents, very rare occasions when an F-22 is show down by the Chinese, this kind of loss rate might start to hurt a month into the conflict. And the USAF would have to withdraw the F-22s at some point so they still have some left in reserve and put the 4.5+ Gens into the missions the F-22s were doing. Very rare a war would last that long with China and for that high a loss rate, but you never know. The F-22s would primarily suffer more from being forced away from their 7 bases in the first island chain and being forced to operate at their max ranges from second island chain bases, but the loss rate from conflict as well in a long war cant be ignored.

Usama Ahmad’s answer to How does the US military currently compare against the Chinese military?

The US may be planning for a short war with China given their preference for Shock and Awe tactics using their overwhelming conventional strength, but as the old axiom goes: Those who plan for short wars tend to lose long ones.

The current concentration of F-22s (and possible F-35s) in seven major basis is not just a threat to the platforms themselves though but the pilots as well.

Recall that the Iranian bombardment of US military bases was done in a way that they deliberately avoided targeting areas where US troops were housed to avoid escalation but they still fired in the proximity of the base to send a message.

This bombardment led to major health issues in US troops stationed on those bases:

A total of 50 U.S. service members suffered traumatic brain injury from this month’s Iranian missile attack on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops, the Defense Department said Tuesday.

Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, can include concussions. Of the 50 patients, 31 were treated in Iraq and have returned to duty, Army Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said in a statement.

More U.S. service members diagnosed with brain injury from Iran missile attack

F-22 pilots aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, and they are pretty much elite pilots of whom a limited pool exists. The impact on their physical health from being stationed on seven bases under intense ballistic missile bombardment leads to the question of pilot attrition rather than F-22 attrition: That is, can the Chinese cause enough physical degradation in the health of F-22 pilots with constant missile bombardment to the point that there aren’t enough pilots in forward positions left to carry out a large enough number of sorties to make a difference in combat. Say you are into week 2 of the war and approximately 40% of your pilots have suffered brain injuries from the bombardment (if not killed outright). You might have to drop your F-22 sortie rate from say 100 a week to 40 a week to conserve your pilots and your aircraft assets (i’m not even taking into account sorties reduced due to airbase disruptions from the missile strikes).

This has the effect of reducing the effectiveness and presence of the F-22 to make a meaningful difference in the overall war without actually having to shoot down the F-22.

The solution, as mentioned above is to distribute your stealth fighters across the 90 bases the Japanese have and hope this dilutes the effectiveness of Chinese missile strikes but with a significant increase in your resources spent equipping all these bases to carry out the complex maintenance an F-22 requires (the stealth coating itself is a hassle), making sure the bases are secured from PRC spies trying to get close to F-22s and that all of these bases are capable of withstanding a PRC rocket force barrage.

There is of course the option of trying to knock out PRC missile bases on the mainland to reduce the barrage. But for the most part, even with all the US’s recon and surveillance capabilities, I doubt they can stop the movement and operations of these in a meaningful manner:

The PRC ballistic missile force’s primary goal is to make US bases unusable. The short range missiles are aimed at the US bases in Okinawa while the more medium range missiles are designed to disrupt operations from bases in Japan.

And the DF-26 is designed to make even operations from bases like Guam risky if not maybe as disrupted as the other bases.

The PRC ballistic missile threat is in part inspired by the US military’s failure to effectively hunt and destroy SCUDs in Iraq during the first Gulf War. Which leads the PRC to believe that if they have mobile, solid fueled missile systems, they would not be as prone to destruction from US military forces and pose a considerable threat for the duration of any war with the US. These kinds of missiles are hard to hunt, can quickly break from cover, set up and fire before the enemy can fire back at them.

With a mobile missile system like the SCUD, you have a 15 minute window to detect and destroy it once it breaks from cover. This is currently not within the capability of the US military.

Source: Usama Ahmad’s answer to How does the US military currently compare against the Chinese military?

My current feeling is that, for the most part, Japanese and US bases will see a constant stream of attacks from the Chinese Strategic Rocket force that will disrupt and hinder operations for the duration of the war (or till the Chinese run out of missiles).

There are unseen variables here. How well the US changes up their base designs, how well they integrate their airforce elements with Japanese airbases to withstand missile bombardment (particularly after reflecting on the lessons of the Iranian missile strike).

There are also unseen variables on the side of the Chinese: What’s the state of their strategic Rocket Force? The current reports coming out of China are that the Strategic Rocket Force (BTW I think their new name is Strategic Support Force) are the worst in terms of mental and physical health among all the armed forces. They spend long amounts of time underground away from sunlight, exposed to chemicals in the air from rocket fuel which is above the health and safety limit. The morale isn’t exactly peak and unit readiness obviously has to be called into question.

The Chinese are trying to improve this through a number of fronts: Increasing the rotation of troops so they spend less time underground due to shorter stints, more VR based training to help them deal with the stress of war when their positions are being bombed and they are constantly hunted when out on mobile launchers, increased access to mental health facilities.

People often forget that war is at the end of the day fought by people, not just platforms. The same way the Traumatic brain injuries of an F-22 pilot can determine the war, the mental health and lung damage of a PRC Rocket force soldier can also determine it.

The PLAAF has done it’s own bit of upgrading and modernizing their force structures. They have broken down from the soviet era brigade structures to smaller structures called flights (similar to squadrons in the west). They have increased the level of pilot participation in flight planning, increased the pilot autonomy in the air and moved away from ground based interception tactics. They have their own Red vs Blue exercises and VR training programs as well.

However, my guess is that these won’t make difference in preparing the PLAAF for fighting against F-22s for the simple reason that even USAF pilots in F-15s and F-16s who are veterans are unable to beat F-22s in air combat. The tech gap is simply too large.

The only benefit of these modernizations I see is that the J-20 pilots whose job it is to skim around the F-22s, using their stealth to protect themselves from the F-22’s missiles, can carry out more effective missions hunting the support aircraft that support the F-22s.

There are some last issues that could impact how China’s fight against American American stealth fighters will play out:

  1. American Production Lines
  2. American Joint operations with allies

On the issue of production lines:

The F-35 production line right now is 15 aircraft a month at peak production. This is considered low by some standards but to be honest, considering that it’s a very advanced fighter it doesn’t seem to matter much. The problem however, is that this is under the assumption that every single F-35 produced will be deployed against China which is not true because the US has to manage multiple theaters (Russia-Europe, Home Air Bases etc.).

Also, the F-35 is a multi national project, so those 15 F-35s being made every month have to shared between 12 Airforces, 1 Marine Corp and 2 Navies across the planet. Further reducing the number of stealth fighters the US can deploy against China.

Source: Usama Ahmad’s answer to How does the US military currently compare against the Chinese military?

At the moment the US has built around 600 F-35s but not all of them have been deployed against the PRC in the Pacific theater. A good chunk of these have gone to allied forces who might not participate in a war against China or to squadrons the US might not redeploy to the Pacific. The 15 a month production line means it will be some time till the US can field the same hundreds of F-15s/F16s/F-18s that they fielded against Iraq or deployed around Iran.

The F-22 has no production lines anymore so every F-22 lost is a permanent loss.

The PRC on the other hand gets to field every single stealth fighter they build to the Pacific theater and don’t have to share the production lines with allied forces.

But as discussed above, this might be a bit of a moot point since the PRC could deploy their J-20s or J-31s to missions that don’t bring much chance of air to air combat against other stealth fighters.

The second is that the US has to coordinate military activities with allies like Japan and Taiwan. NATO and the US-South Korean militaries are heavily integrated already at the moment but it’s unclear how well the US and Japanese militaries or the US and Taiwanese militaries will work together. The Pentagon bureaucracy is appallingly bad while the US works with militaries world wide, actively integrating them into the overall command structure led by the US for a war against China is a bit of a new thing for them to do.

The PRC, being a single entity, does not face this problem.

Missile Defense and Missile Defeat

The US has begun to understand the lethality of the Chinese missile arsenal and the threat it poses to US naval and airpower assets in the Pacific which is why they have begun to invest in the idea of 2 forms of counter missile operations:

  1. Missile Defense
  2. Missile Defeat

The missile defense aspect is the idea that you have platforms capable of shooting down enemy missiles in a way that moves away from the kinetic interceptor technology of today.

The current interceptor technology of Patriots and THAADs are incredibly expensive which is why you can only deploy them in a low density manner to counter isolated missile launches such as ICBMs from North Korea.

The cost of individual interceptors is so high that you would bankrupt yourself making enough of them to shoot down missiles that cost a fraction of the interceptor’s cost. If you are building 2 $50 million dollar interceptors to shoot down 1 $10 million dollar missile, you are bankrupting yourself.

The only cost effective way to shoot down swarms of Chinese missiles is using energy based weapons but that is not something that’s deployable today as the technology is still being developed.

Missile Defeat is the second form of defense: Where you saturate your conflict zone with sensors so that you can have longer early warnings of missile launches and be able to target them and defeat the missile launches before they actually launch. So basically, solve the problem of the 15 minute window that the US faced when scud hunting in the Iraqi desert.

This is currently being developed as well and is not in a finalized solution.

And of course, the Chinese aren’t sitting around either and will come up with ways to counter energy based missile defense and sensor networks attempting to defeat missile launches.

At the end of the day, the US military is no joke and the F-22 is probably the single most deadliest fighter ever created, probably even more so than the F-35 which funnily enough is crippling the US economy in peacetime with it’s $30–50,000 dollar per hour maintenance cost.

Stealth fighters are great to have in a war but terrible to have in a peace and at a time when US social unrest is at an all time high due to economic inequalities, perhaps the greatest threat to F-22s are congressional budget hearings rather than any weapon in the Chinese arsenal.

Nevertheless, the PRC has been investing heavily in denial weapons that would deny free air and sea access to the US military operating close to the Chinese seaboard (and keep them away from Taiwan).

One potential scenario is that assuming the US doesn’t rebase the F-22s to the 90 Japanese air-fields but keeps them concentrated in the current 8 or so bases they have:

The F-22s would probably not face that many losses from missile strikes but pilot rotation would have be high due to high churn over because of mental/physical strain from constant Chinese missile bombardments on F-22 airfields. F-22s would be more at risk of malfunction due to disruptions in their maintenance routines because of missile strikes. They would probably also fly lower numbers of sorties than optimal because of constant bombardment and these would normally be air defense or air escort sorties for aircraft trying to get closer to the Chinese sea board for recon or to disrupt Chinese air support for any potential invasion of Taiwan. They could also be used for strike missions on the mainland on high value military targets that non-stealth fighters would not be able to reach.

Edit: Thanks to Walter Tak in the comments pointing out that a fully loaded F-22 might only be restricted to hitting coastal targets rather than anything deep inside Chinese territory due to range limitations.

The F-22s would have to face several situations where they were operating at the edge of their combat radius because of the constant threat to air refuellers from Chinese stealth aircraft that would utilize their stealth to hunt for USAF/Japanese AWACS, EW, Recon and Refueling platforms in contested airspace. The F-22s would also be paired with a drone UCAV wingman that the F-22 would control remotely when operating in high-danger environments where the F-22 can’t be risked and a remotely piloted wingman from the invisible F-22 would take on the risk instead (assuming stable links can be maintained in the face of Chinese EW). If such comm links are disrupted, the UCAV would have to operate autonomously using onboard AI.

The longer the war drags on however, the worse it is for the F-22s as the US would have to begin pulling F-22 pilots from squadrons not based in the Pacific as the problem they would face is pilot shortages rather than F-22 shortages. A small but significant number of F-22s might be lost due to destruction on the ground or air crashes due to maintenance disruptions (more so the latter than the former). But the primary issue the USAF would face is that their F-22 pilots on the 8 air bases facing constant missile bombardment would begin to face serious mental and physical health problems due to concussions/mental strain/shell shock. They would need to be rotated out of combat in tours as short as a few days given how intense a US-China open conflict would be. The sortie rate could be maintained as long as pilots are able to recover and cognitively function once returned to combat after their tour. If they don’t and their mental/physical injuries are more permanent or long duration, the F-22 fleet would have to drastically reduce sorties correspondingly.

This strain isn’t a one way thing either: Chinese Rocket Force troops who are in underground silos, launching hundreds of missiles a day, breathing in toxic fumes from rocket fuel and facing constant bombardment of their own from US assets would face similar strains and have to be rotated constantly.

As mentioned earlier, in war we sometimes focus too much on the platform aspect and forget that it’s real human beings fighting it. And the question of the F-22 in the Pacific might ultimately boil down to which side has enough soldiers standing and in fighting condition at the end of the day: A tale as old as war itself

Edit: Thanks to JL Shin for the correction: the Strategic Rocket Force is still separate from the Strategic Support Force and both exist as separate entities so the ballistic missile force referred to in this answer would be the Strategic Rocket force.