Airpower & Strategic Interdiction: Structure & Posture Implications for the USAF

A White Paper by Col Michael W. “Starbaby” Pietrucha

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

Airpower and Strategic Interdiction is the last in a series of three papers examining the unique vulnerabilities of the People’s Republic of China in the context of a Strategic Interdiction campaign. It is intended to provide an affordable offset strategy that takes into account the unique characteristics of the adversary and the nature of Asia-Pacific geography. The first paper, Re-Fighting the Wrong War, laid out lessons from the Pacific War against Japan as applied to China. The second, Reinventing the Cartwheel, explored the application of a Strategic Interdiction campaign tailored for the PRC. Airpower addresses the USAF force structure implications of adopting an SI approach and the impact upon current and future application of combat airpower.

The most important thing is to have a flexible approach . . . . The truth is no one knows exactly what air fighting will be like in the future. We can’t say anything will stay as it is, but we also can’t be certain the future will conform to particular theories, which so often, between the wars, have proved wrong.

Brigadier General Robin Olds, USAF

In 1981, The US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command unveiled a radical revamping of Army Doctrine, by then in development for four years. Titled AirLand Battle, the concept was developed to fight the USSR in Central Europe. This doctrinal revolution became a Joint effort that drove acquisition, training and force posture and led directly to the combined arms force that fought in DESERT STORM. In 1991 this force decisively defeated a Soviet client, albeit a weak, poorly trained and geographically isolated one shorn of outside support.

AirLand battle was not designed in a vacuum or against a generic adversary. It was designed to fight the Red Army and its Warsaw Pact clients on the terrain of Central Europe alongside NATO partners. European terrain, the approaches, and the doctrine, equipment, logistical tail and support structure of the Soviet war machine was well characterized, exhaustively researched, and continuously updated. There was no discussion of a “near-peer competitor” and no generic “A2AD environment”. The Army knew who they were going to fight and where, and set about answering how they were going to accomplish that task – with a well-trained, forward-postured Joint force designed to offset key enemy capabilities and expanded the battlespace from the point of contact well into the enemy rear.

Today we have no such construct. The Department of Defense has embraced the generic adversary, who may be a “near-peer” and may be technologically advanced, but is a nameless, faceless adversary who is reduced to the product of a “capabilities based” analysis shorn of the connections to geography, culture, alliance structure and fighting methodology which were part and parcel of AirLand Battle. This has led to a defense enterprise focused heavily on advanced technology that has deliberately sacrificed readiness, forward posture, and representative training against a specific enemy while allocating immense resources into the never-ending search for the elusive and mythical “technological game changer” – and failing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Air Force’s force structure, which is long overdue for a strategy-based reassessment.

If we are going to prepare our forces adequately for warfare in the real world, we have to have a real opponent. For the major combat operations that form the center of the Department’s focus, only one country fits that bill – the People’s Republic of China, and figuring out precisely how we are going to fight a war with China is long overdue. Only by preparing to fight China effectively will we have a hope of preventing the very war we plan for – and offsetting the reality that the PRC has spent a quarter-century planning to fight us while we were distracted elsewhere.

Background: Strategic Interdiction

Re-Fighting the Wrong War argued that the airpower template derived from DESERT STORM could not be successfully applied against China, which will never be geographically, numerically and culturally disadvantaged like Iraq was. Instead, it urged treating China as an island nation similar to Japan in World War II, and conducting a counter-logistics campaign against the PRC. Measured by tonnage, 98% of all trade with China goes by sea; this percentage is increasing even as land transport infrastructure is incrementally improved. As a result, China shares many characteristics with other island nations. A method for inhibiting Chinese power projection capabilities by conducting an extended counter-logistics effort was laid out in Reinventing the Cartwheel, which characterized the nature of China’s transport and energy infrastructure, and outlined a campaign design intended to break the critical linkages. Critically, the campaign does not rely on yet-to-be procured systems, unproven concepts, or unanticipated technological breakthroughs. The concept that serves as the foundation for this campaign is referred to as Strategic Interdiction, and if necessary, could be executed by existing forces, today.

A Strategic Interdiction campaign rests on four pillars and is intended to provide a viable offset strategy that is based on a presumed need to coerce China in the Western Pacific. The campaign is a long-term, counter-logistics effort which rests on four pillars; Counterforce, Inshore, Infrastructure Degradation and Distant Interdiction. It is a combination of several efforts including a limited blockade, interference with transportation networks, and disabling some energy production at the resource level. The primary objective here is to eventually neutralize certain elements of PRC military power by starving them of energy. A campaign would have four elements:

  • A “Counterforce” effort designed to attrit the adversary air forces (particularly bombers), naval forces (gray hulls) and naval auxiliaries (replenishment) to the point where they can neither project military power nor defend against US power projection far beyond the Asian continental shelf.
  • An “Inshore” element, which consists of operations to deny effective use of home waters, including rivers and coastal waters. Standoff or covert aerial mining is a key component of this element.
  • An “Infrastructure Degradation” plan intended to disrupt or destroy specific soft targets, such as oil terminals, oil refineries, pipelines and railway chokepoints such as tunnels and bridges. Many of these targets would be in airspace not defended by ground-based air defense.
  • A “Distant Interdiction” effort outside of effective adversary military reach, intended to interdict energy supplies. This strategy is aimed primarily at bulk petroleum carriers (tankers) and secondarily at coal transports, and not at container, dry bulk, or passenger vessels. Such a strategy might not be lethally oriented, directed instead towards the seizure and internment of PRC-bound vessels.

A strategic interdiction strategy is not a short war strategy.  It is a prolonged containment strategy derived from previous experience in the Pacific War.

The Campaign

Reinventing constructed an SI campaign, including the identification of critical target sets. It was designed to affect the import, production and transportation of energy resources, primarily coal, crude oil and refined petroleum products (natural gas was largely left alone). The campaign design was drawn from similar efforts conducted by the USAAF in World War II against Japanese oil refineries, rail transportation and maritime transport.

The distant interdiction pillar, conducted at key geographical chokepoints, would interdict oil tankers and bulk coal shipments, depriving the PRC of the majority of its total petroleum requirements and a fraction of imported coal – but the fraction important to the southern provinces. The Inshore pillar would be executed by direct attack of coastal ship traffic where feasible, but also with thirty-two offshore minefields, affecting all People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) bases, all major oil terminals, and the mouths of the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers. The infrastructure degradation plan was intended to shatter the refinery infrastructure, concentrating on damaging or isolating all refineries used for producing jet fuel or its components, while leaving small (teakettle) refineries and chemical plants alone. Aboveground Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) sites would be isolated by attacking the pumping stations, and the international pipelines would also suffer the loss of pumping stations on the Chinese side of the border. Finally, the plan was intended to dismember the rail transportation system at tunnels and bridges, preventing distribution of coal, crude oil, and oil products while splitting China’s transportation links at the borders, the Yangtze River, the Taiheng mountain range, and the Loess plateau.

The total number of identified targets on the mainland is 107, a third of which are complex targets such as refineries, requiring multiple weapon hits to achieve the desired effect.  Less than half are proximate to typical Chinese air defense garrisons.  None are hardened, although some (like bridges) are often difficult to destroy.  All 32 minefields are in well-defended airspace.  No military facilities were directly targeted, nor were communications, underground petroleum storage, air defenses, commercial power plants, coal load/offload facilities, space control, space launch or leadership targets.

Figure 1: Target Set. The Railroad network is in red, with the Yangtze displayed (quite improbably) in blue as far as the 3 Gorges Dam. Provinces are labeled. Red targets are refinery targets (including SPR sites), orange are international pipeline links, white targets are transportation targets (mostly tunnels) while yellow targets are rail bridges over water. Blue symbols represent the minefield laydown.

Figure 1: Target Set. The Railroad network is in red, with the Yangtze displayed (quite improbably) in blue as far as the 3 Gorges Dam. Provinces are labeled. Red targets are refinery targets (including SPR sites), orange are international pipeline links, white targets are transportation targets (mostly tunnels) while yellow targets are rail bridges over water. Blue symbols represent the minefield laydown.


The direct effect of an SI strategy on PRC power projection capabilities cannot be precisely predicted from the data available from open sources. The goal of depriving PLAN and PLAAF forces of jet fuel will not be accomplished within a few weeks. While China has no strategic reserve for refined petroleum products, it does have commercial storage, plus military storage of undetermined size and composition. Diversion from civilian use and reallocation of refinery resources are probable, but both of those efforts will be hampered by interference with transportation; reallocation of production may be prevented by damage to refineries. The PLAN is not as reliant on jet fuel as the PLANAF and PLAF; turbine powered ships run as well on marine diesel as on jet fuel.

It is certain that an energy denial strategy will have immediate effects on the PRC, if not the PLA. If left unmolested, the PRC’s domestic energy production can keep the PLA well supplied forever if it is the nation’s first priority. Nevertheless, interdiction of oil imports will force an immediate reallocation of resources and likely cause a dip into the strategic reserve. Any perturbations, including physical damage, against the rail transportation system will ripple through the country – the system is over capacity as it is and even weather events disrupt rail transport. Damage to refineries simply cannot be mitigated rapidly – these are the softest of soft targets and even relatively minor damage can cause a refinery to shut down.

The secondary effects on electricity production will likewise ripple through the transportation and industrial sectors. Electricity shortages caused by oil or coal interdiction will affect the train network; refineries starved of either feedstock or electricity cannot refine and pipelines without electricity do not move oil. Reduced diesel production will affect the non-electric portion of the rail network plus both maritime and truck transport, while at he same time diesel will be in demand for emergency power generation. Local surpluses and shortages of fuel, coal and electricity are certain to occur, further complicating distribution challenges. While not included in the initial targeting analysis, any air or naval base isolated from resupply could find its local storage subject to attack.

The duration of any campaign is difficult to predict. The amount and location of military storage for refined fuel remains unknown, as do wartime consumption rates. Similarly, there are absolute limits on refinery production, rail transport, and truck movement of refined products, none of which are known.

I.  Force Structure and Capabilities

The opening section is almost entirely a recap of the earlier papers, laying out the theoretical backing for a Strategic Interdiction campaign along with campaign objectives and elements (pillars).  Most, if not all, of the campaign pillars can be executed today with current structure, posture and fielded capabilities.  However, we are far from optimally positioned to do so.  The discussion is intended to identify broad airpower capabilities necessary to conduct parts of an SI strategy more effectively than with our current force mixture. Offensive cyber capabilities are deliberately left out of the discussion, although their possible applications should not be discounted casually.

The Long and Short Range Aviation Mix

The USAF’s TACAIR fleet consists of a relatively small number of bombers with a large fleet of short-range fighters.  This force design is driven by our European experiences, stretching back to World War II.  In compact terrain where basing is not an issue, the short-range fighter dominates, but when considering the vast expanses of the Pacific and the paucity of suitable airbases, the fighter dependency on nearby airbases limits its reach.  When the enemy is in range, so are we.  This suggests that the current mix of long and short-range combat airpower is unbalanced for most Pacific scenarios – an assertion also reinforced by our experience in World War II.

The broad expanses of the Pacific reinforce the value of the B-52 in particular, which routinely flew missions from Guam to Vietnam, and the LRS-B, which can be expected to have a far longer operational range than any fighter without all of the vulnerabilities of the venerable Stratofortress.  A larger bomber force would totally upend the basing challenges in the Western Pacific, turning strategic vulnerabilities (such as the fighter bases on Okinawa) into strategic depth.  The ability to operate against the PRC from sovereign US territory is currently a stretch for fighters, consumes a great deal of tanker-delivered fuel, and largely limited to bases in the Marianas.  A bomber with a round trip range of 8000 nm could reach anyplace on the Chinese coast from facilities in Wake, Midway, Australia, or Micronesia. Rebalancing the range mix could also change the investment for basing – Wake, Johnson Atoll and Midway are US-owned territories which are outside IRBM range and are a stretch for air-launched cruise missiles.  Of the airfields in Table 1, only Guam, Tindall and Wake are operational military airfields suitable for combat aircraft; the others would require runway repair, rebuilding, or improvement in addition to the construction of support facilities.

Base Closest PRC Coast Furthest PRC Coast Treaty Status
Guam/Tinian/Saipan 1600 nm 2200 nm US Sovereign
Wake 2500 nm 3300 nm US Sovereign
Midway 2900 nm 4000 nm US Sovereign
Johnson Atoll 3800 nm 4600 nm US Sovereign
Kwajalein 2900 nm 3600 nm Compact
Palau 1400 nm 2100 nm Compact
Yap 1400 nm 2100 nm Compact
Enewetak 2600 nm 3200 nm Compact
Darwin / Tindall 2200 nm 2300 nm Defense Treaty

Table 1: Range from Pacific Bases to the nearest section of the PRC mainland and the furthest, usually the Bohai Sea or Vietnam-China border.

One of the difficulties with bombers has been recognized since before World War II – a long-range bomber cannot be escorted very far by a short-range fighter.  In Europe, B-17s and B-24s were eventually escorted by longer-range fighters, which slashed loss rates to Luftwaffe aircraft.  In the Pacific, the B-29 went unaccompanied against a fuel-starved, altitude-limited Japanese fighter force and suffered fewer losses.  After WWII, the Air Force attempted to drag escort fighters along from bomber wingtips under programs called Tip-Tow and Tom-Tom (not to mention the XF-85 Goblin parasite), but this was dangerous, structurally stressful and ultimately unsuccessful.  But there is no reason that bombers cannot carry air-to-air weapons today.  The Active Electronically Steerable Array (AESA) radars which are proliferating through the aviation industry will be necessary sensor capabilities that bombers require for targeting mobile systems (especially ships) at range and already come with air to air features.  With the addition of missiles, bombers that can provide their own long-range anti-air capabilities would be a formidable strike platform.

The Low Altitude Regime

In the 1980s, the Air Force planned to fight a low altitude war.  Realistically, against the Soviet onslaught, there was little choice.  We expected to be driven low due to the weapons, the weather, the threat, the target characteristics, the attack profile or a combination of any of those factors.  The heavily armored A-10 was designed to fight under European conditions, as was the F-111, which survived by being smoking fast at low level, at night and in the weather.  Paveway III, IR Maverick and Hellfire weapons were designed for employment under the weather.  When DESERT STORM rolled around, the force made an immediate switch to medium altitude, and it stayed there ever since.  In the absence of a credible threat to aircraft at medium altitude, this made perfect sense.  In the presence of an advanced threat characterized by long range SAMs and a networked air defense system with a multitude of sensors, it makes no sense at all.  Facing an advanced Chinese IADS or the anti-air warfare (AAW) capabilities of a modern warship, the return to low altitude is a necessary precondition for survivability.

Modern fighter aviators have been taught that 90% of all aircraft shot down have been shot down by antiaircraft artillery (AAA), and that the danger is increased at low altitude.  This is true, but deceptive.  Those statistics are centered on the time period from World War II to Vietnam, which entailed massive aircraft losses.  Post-Vietnam, of the 31 American aircraft lost to hostile fire, only 8 have been downed by AAA, all in DESERT STORM.  Notably, every Coalition aircraft lost to AAA was downed while conducting an attack; none were downed enroute to their target area or during RTB.  In any case, China’s AAA is utilized as point defense and for protection of maneuver units and is not deployed like Vietnamese, German, Japanese or Korean AAA.

From a low observability standpoint, in order to be “stealthy” against China, an aircraft has to simultaneously reduce its signatures against active radar, passive RF detection, and infra-red.  It does very little good to have a low RF signature, the hottest engines in the sky, and a host of radar and communications emissions, all cruising in at medium altitude.  But at low altitude, it makes little difference what the emissions are like if the sensor is over the horizon.  For a strike aircraft at 200 feet above the surface, even a masted radar like CLAM SHELL has a radar horizon limit of 28 nm, and the TOMB STONE sitting next to it is horizon-limited at 22nm. If the TOMB STONE had an attached IR sensor, that sensor would be even more horizon-limited.[1]  Although sensor networks can be expanded with airborne sensors, even airborne sensors have to deal with a clutter problem when looking down – and airborne sensors are much easier to find, emitting or not.

In the final calculation, an aircraft at low altitude is harder to detect, is detectable at shorter ranges, provides smaller engagement windows, has ground clutter to help its countermeasures work and can often use terrain to terminate the engagement.

Low altitude has one other key advantage, at least over land.  The Digital Terrain Elevation Data (DTED) in our possession allows precise, GPS-free navigation in the low altitude regime, even in the complete absence of a GPS signal.  Terrain profile matching (TERPROM) is the technological successor to the less precise TERCOM, and is widely fielded in NATO aircraft and weapon systems.  TERPROM allows GPS-free navigation and terrain avoidance under conditions where the GPS constellation is completely negated.


Part of the presumed technological advantage of the so-called “Fifth Generation” fighters is their sensor suite, which is advanced, but not too advanced to put on older fighters.  Indeed, the legacy fighters are better sensor platforms because they do not have the aperture constraints imposed by an LO design. Putting aside airframe age, an upgraded Eagle remains a highly competitive air to air platform, with room for increased sensor apertures and an improved weapons loadout that neither of the stealthy fighters can accommodate.

The USAF has been overly dependent on radar sensors for the air-to-air fight, and largely abandoned infra-red search and track (IRST) systems after the F-4D, although LANTIRN was first used as an air-to-air sensor almost two decades ago. IRSTs are common on foreign airframes, notably the entire FLANKER series, the Eurofighter, Gripen, and Rafale.  IRST by itself is a clear weather two-dimensional sensor, providing azimuth and elevation only in a cloud free environment. However, pairing an IRST with active (laser) ranging in a fighter-sized package would allow long range, no-warning engagements against air breathing threats regardless of the RF jamming scenario.  Similarly, the proliferation of AESAs and improved RWR could lead to another tried-and-true method for detecting airborne emitters, including jammers.  Passive RF detection was used extensively by Weasel Phantoms; the F-4G’s APR-47 radar homing and warning system provided a direction of arrival precise enough to be used for radar cueing, partially offsetting the antiquated radar in the nose.

Similarly, in an environment where target pod video became the sensor of choice, non-optical sensor development languished.  Air Force combat aircraft can only identify ships with targeting pods – at a range that is too close against Chinese naval Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs). Against the USSR, the B-52 filled a maritime strike role in the North Atlantic, but does not have the necessary capabilities to perform this mission effectively in the Pacific.[2]   This deficiency affects maritime patrol missions, limiting the range at which ships can be identified and thereby shrinking the ocean area that can be effectively monitored.  The Navy uses ISAR (Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar)[3] to identify ships at longer ranges – this capability could be a software upgrade of existing SAR systems.  Similarly, passive detection capabilities for RF signals may allow detection at extremely long range, and will assist with identification of warships. This capability would be particularly handy for the B-1 and B-52.  The B-52H, with sensor and weapons upgrades, has the potential to be an unmatched antisurface warfare platform in the Pacific.

Anti-Air Warfare

The USAF has relied heavily on radar and the AIM-120 AMRAAM for two decades while the evolution of the threat placed USAF fighters at a notable disadvantage in a modern beyond visual range (BVR fight).  There are a number of related improvements that would substantially improve BVR capabilities, starting with new missiles.  The de facto maximum AAM dimension is set by the relatively compact AMRAAM, because of the internal carriage limits (which limit length) and wingtip carriage requirement (which limits weight).  Larger missiles mean larger motors, more range, bigger warheads and improved seekers.  Thus, we are caught at a disadvantage against adversaries who carry their AAMs externally, notably the Sparrow-sized PL-12 or the massive Vympel R-37 (AA-13).  Japan fields the AAM-4B, an AESA-equipped AAM in a Sparrow airframe, which has 25% more volume than the AIM-120 for the same length.[4]

The utilization of networked fire control will expand the ability to engage hostile air.  The Navy is well into the development of Naval Integrated Fire Control, Counterair (NIFC-CA), which centers on the newly upgraded E-2D with its dual band AESA radar.  This datalink-enabled system ties together Aegis ships, the Hawkeye, Naval fighters and (potentially) JLENS into a fire control network that will not just enable information sharing, but also integrated fires.  It is the logical follow-on to the Combined Engagement Capability (CEC) that allowed Aegis Cruisers to guide missiles fired by other ships, using older ships as missile caddies.

Adding bombers (particularly the B-52 and LRS-B) into the mix, even as missile caddies, would provide large airborne missile magazines and counter the PRC’s loadout advantage.[5]  Air engagements at long range pose very real engagement limits because USAF fighters carry fewer missiles than their Russian or Chinese counterparts.  Missile caddies could be tied to manned fighters, providing an increased number of AAMs available.  Small airframes, like the Navy’s X-47 or USAF’s X-45, could serve this purpose in a small, expendable airframe.  Similarly, while arming bombers with AAMs fell out of vogue in the 1970s, an AESA-equipped bomber might well serve as a platform for even very large AAMs, offering a massive airborne magazine depth on an aircraft that itself has self-protection features.

Under a distant interdiction strategy, significant defensive counterair (DCA) burdens will be necessary to protect bases against air and cruise missile attacks, especially if the PLAN deploys submarine-launched cruise missiles.  Airborne platforms will have longer line of sight, earlier detection and more engagement opportunities than ground-based systems, and be more mobile, but will not require the same survivability features as aircraft that have a primary OCA mission.  The FT-X, a derivative of the T-X design, would be an example of a combat aircraft that could perform DCA as a primary role, either operating from smaller airstrips or freeing up other air superiority aircraft for offensive roles.

In a related issue, the Army has been an unreliable partner for the provision of ground-based air defense since the fall of the Berlin Wall, leaving Pacific bases short of cruise missile defense.  The Army has neither developed systems for airbase air defense (such as SLAMRAAAM or NASAMS) nor committed to a robust forward deployment of the systems they do have such as C-RAM and especially JLENS.  Avenger, intended to shoot helicopters, is stymied by clouds and fog.  It may be reasonable for the USAF to assume some Army TOA and accept responsibility for short-range air defense of airbases.  In this case, the USAF’s reliance on AMRAAM is indeed a benefit, as the ground-launched AMRAAM (NASAMS) is already fielded in NATO and has an all-weather, medium-range capability that Avenger lacks.

Antisurface Warfare

With the removal of the Harpoon from the B-52H, the USAF has no standoff antiship capability.  Excepting HARM, the USAF is limited to engagement of grey hulls protected only by SHORADS; the capability to engage surface combatants from standoff has been allowed to atrophy. Foreign F-16 and F-15E are capable of shooting Harpoon missiles, but the range of this weapon has long since been eclipsed by PLAN anti-air warfare (AAW) capabilities.  The Long-Range Antiship missile (LRASM) is in its developmental infancy, while the Naval Strike Missile is operational in NATO and an air-launched variant is in the works.  Regardless of the weapon or weapons chosen, an air launched antiship missile must outrange current and future variants of the HHQ-9 naval SAM and be inexpensive enough to support large salvo sizes.

But there are other ways to sink ships.  The largest element of the inshore pillar is likely to be mining, although properly timed attacks against surface vessels in port may also serve to block assess to shoreline facilities.  All USAF bombers maintain the theoretical ability to lay mines; the BALTOPS exercise in NATO regularly involves both aerial minelaying and minesweeping activities. The Navy bears responsibility for mine development while the USAF handles the vast bulk of delivery.  Despite this, it was PACAF that demonstrated the first standoff aerial mine in late 2014.[6]

The “Quickstrike” series of shallow-water bottom mines are the only air-delivered mines in the US inventory.  These consist of target detection devices (TDDs) and parachutes added to Mk-82 (500-lb.) or Mk-83 (1000-lb) bombs. Deploying these mines involves multiple passes at low altitude and slow airspeed, making offensive minelaying against the PRC unsurvivable.  However, the Mk-82/83/84 are the same bomb bodies used to build up JDAM and Paveway, and there is no reason why a Quickstrike/JDAM hybrid cannot be assembled.   PACOM is pursuing the Quickstrike-ER, an extended-range JDAM with a TDD, and is experimenting with Quickstrike-J, a stock JDAM with a TDD that can be dropped by any JDAM-equipped aircraft.  A powered variant (Quickstrike-P) could further increase standoff and allow distant mining inside harbors and up rivers.

Obviously, air-delivered mines might well be an element of a counterforce strategy, as well, and can be laid reactively as well as preemptively.  For example, the ability to interdict the first wave of an amphibious assault with mines is hampered by short strategic warning times and the lack of knowledge about target beaches and assault timing.  However, the second wave is far more vulnerable, as the destination and timing are known or easily predicted[7]. Furthermore, vessels that are held out of port will have difficulty reloading, refueling and rearming.

Weapon Extremes

The Soviet Union was in its time the world’s foremost practitioner of air defense, and Voyska PVO wasn’t just an air defense command, it was an entire service separate from the Air Force.  In order to penetrate Soviet air defenses, US offensive capabilities migrated to the extremes – altitudes that were extremely low (cruise missiles, F-111, B-1B), extremely high (U-2), or extremely fast (SR-71, SRAM). The high altitude sanctuary disappeared fairly early on (except for the Blackbird), and even with the F-117 flying in secret, the mass of attack capabilities remained within the extremes, with even the B-52 flying low.  Today the PRC is the globe’s air defense leader, and the USAF has largely abandoned the extremes for a “straight up the middle” approach with LO aircraft and missiles.  In the meantime, the Second Artillery Corps’ conventional missile buildup takes advantage of an inbuilt asymmetry – the US is hampered by the INF treaty and cannot build ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles while China is under no such restrictions. In effect, China is itself moving to the extremes for its own weapons.

This argues for a US return to weapons extremes focusing on long-range penetration using extremely low altitude or extremely high speed, the latter in the form of hypersonic weapons.  The blinding speed of hypersonic weapons poses a very challenging intercept problem – an air defense system that would eat a subsonic target for lunch might stand impotent against a hypersonic weapon which is easy to detect but difficult to knock down.  The PRC, which because of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty has not had to deal with a ballistic missile threat, has massively underinvested in missile defense.  Similarly, low altitude coverage is difficult to achieve for a country the size of the PRC.  Of the 107 mainland targets mentioned earlier, roughly half were in proximity to air defenses.  Of that half, 40% are vulnerable to a low altitude weapon because of rough terrain that limits the reach of ground-based air defenses against a low altitude target.

Reconnaissance and Surveillance

The Air Force tends to lump Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) together, but in reality they are very different aspects of an information-gathering system.  Our current air-breathing surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities tend to be very much of the non-penetrating variety, requiring a total lack of air defense to operate. Indeed, in the face of a massive threat to all aspects of our information-gathering architecture it is difficult to envision successfully employing most of it (especially remotely piloted aircraft) against the PRC in the Western Pacific.  If we are to be able to fulfill the expectations of the inshore or counterforce pillars, we are going to have to pry targeting information from inside the dragon’s den and not simply wait for the dragon to emerge.

After DESERT STORM, the USAF retired the RF-4C and the Marines retired the RF-4B.  The low altitude, high-speed reconnaissance niche was abandoned in favor of overhead assets and surveillance UAVs that cannot be used in defended airspace. In Vietnam, a similar penetration problem was solved with air-launched, helicopter-recovered Firebee drone variants, called “Lightning Bugs”.  These modified target drones flew over 3800 combat missions in Vietnam, China and North Korea, many at low altitude.  Reutilizing the Lightning Bug concept from Vietnam, target drones might be repurposed to provide survivable, low altitude tactical reconnaissance and sensor infiltration missions.[8]

In WWII, Korea and Vietnam, Communist civil engineers often concealed road repairs by reinforcing fords or building “underwater bridges”, leaving the actual status of transportation routes difficult to determine via aerial reconnaissance.   Similarly, the operational status of other target sets may be effectively concealed.  The capability to detect and monitor certain signatures which reveal activity rather than physical status of industrial facilities or transportation links will allow for a more current picture of red movement, production and transportation status. This might be accomplished with penetrating reconnaissance and / or air-emplaced unattended sensors. [9]

In the maritime domain, on-board sensors (like ISAR) may assist ASuW targeting. Reliable broad area surveillance of ocean areas will likely be necessary to support counterforce operations, providing detection, track and identification of surface vessels before a strike is even tasked. Maritime surveillance missions might also employ air-dropped sensor systems for coverage of maritime chokepoints, and covert tagging of surface vessels may aid identification and tracking.

Electronic Warfare

EW is the unwanted Thanksgiving dinner guest in the USAF’s investment portfolio, one that has suffered from chronic underinvestment despite delivering a stunning success in DESERT STORM.  Unfortunately, while the guest might be unwanted, he’s carrying many of the ingredients for a balanced meal.  Today the USAF is entirely reliant on the US Navy for electronic attack, and no USAF EWO has flown in an Air Force EW fighter since 1996.  This lack of capability has major implications in any fight with China, especially under conditions where the Navy is unavailable to provide support.  Electronic attack assists penetration of air vehicles in any radar environment; support jamming hides numbers, inserts false targets, breaks communications links, and makes it that much harder to detect targets in clutter, especially LO targets.  Electronic Warfare is more than a key enabler, it is a necessary enhancement for any style of modern warfare.

The Air Force needs to rebuild its own EW infrastructure, starting with a revitalized EW enterprise.  The lack of operationally-experienced fighter EWOs has permeated the service by denying us necessary expertise and allowing the service to pursue unproductive paths through sheer lack of institutional knowledge.  Furthermore, allowing the Navy to monopolize fighter EW with the EF-18G has been foolish from a TOA standpoint – as this article is written the Navy is likely to see funding for 30 more EA-18G while the USAF’s EF-15G is nothing more than a collection of slides.  The USAF’s EWO cadre is dwindling and ageing out.  Rebuilding the enterprise is more than an urgent priority – it is a critical reinforcement of our crumbling TACAIR fleet.

There is another aspect to EW that occasionally creeps into warfighting concepts – the use of directed energy (DE) as a method of disrupting electronic systems more completely, or more permanently, than simply affecting the inputs.  To some extent, this is a difficult task against military systems that are designed with inherent resistance to electromagnetic interference (EMI).  Under an SI strategy, military systems would comprise only a part of the broader target set.  A common thread between rail transport, refinery options, and pipeline systems is the use of computer systems to control complex processes.  Offensive EW capabilities intended to interfere with, degrade or destroy control systems would be particularly useful in cases where the precise locations of control facilities are not known or not subject to kinetic attack.  Such systems might also be used for nonlethal disabling of merchant vessels underway – any boarding mission might well be enhanced with the capability to deliver disruptive effects against merchant vessels without endangering their basic seaworthiness.

II.  Force Posture, Support and Allies

It goes without saying that capable allies and partners can enhance the application of an SI strategy, given the congested nature of the maritime supply routes leading to the PRC and the distance from the Chinese mainland enjoyed by many PNs.   While Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Australia possess very capable air forces, the region is also replete with partners that have much more limited air capabilities.  Realistically, countries such as Cambodia and the Philippines have a long way to climb with respect to airpower capabilities; the inclusion of capabilities with significant application for building partnerships is both necessary and completely unfunded.

Partly as a result of our post-Vietnam disengagement from Asia, force posture in the Pacific is problematic; there are fewer forward-based forces at fewer locations than at any time since the beginning of World War II.  The posture that we do have is heavily oriented towards Northeast Asia.  With respect to a SI strategy aimed at China, this position is well suited to supporting infrastructure degradation, counterforce and inshore operations in the PRC’s north and eastern provinces.  It is much less desirable for southern provinces, and very limited with respect to any distant interdiction strategy.  As noted above, prudent investment in a new and upgraded bomber force can obviate some of the basing challenge, but not all of it.  Every hour spent enroute to or from a distant base is an hour that isn’t applying effects against the adversary.

The political conditions that drive country access are somewhat fluid and can be very situation-dependent.  There are airpower possibilities that can and should be exploited across the theater.  While it is extremely unlikely that we will get all of the access that we want, when we want it, it is also unlikely that we will be unable to get some of the access we need, when we need it.  Part of the strategy calculation that may make that possible is a slight reorientation of PACOM’s “places, not bases” framework.

Geography trumps technology.  With the exception of the A-10, the current short-range fighter/attack fleet normally requires hard-surfaced runways with a length of 8000 ft, with cables installed on the airfield or nearby[10].  Depending on weather conditions and loadout, tankers (and some airlifters) may require more.  The combination of Cold War planning and US / USSR competition ensured that Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arabian peninsula were well provisioned with long, heavy airfields – a condition which is not replicated elsewhere outside the Korean peninsula and NATO.

This places the USAF in an unenviable position in the Pacific Theater.  While there is no shortage of long runways, the vast majority are civilian international airports, which are generally unsuitable for use by fighter / attack / bomber aircraft.  They tend to be densely packed, in urban areas, and without the ability to load or store weapons.  The long, heavy runway requirement severely limits the places from which combat aircraft can operate.  Under such conditions, the applicability of shorter-legged landbased airpower to the “Distant” pillar may be severely limited – and that applies to Navy carrier aircraft based ashore.

Frontier Basing

There are other options, if we can take advantage of the civil infrasuructure.  Fighters rarely launch combat operations from civil airfields; the rare exceptions are dual use airfields like Keflavik / Rekjavik or Dhahran / King Abdul Aziz. Here, runway length and strength are rarely issues.  The single greatest limitation on the use of civil airfields by military aircraft is weapons storage and the associated safety and distance requirements.  The safety distances (quantity-distance, or QD) required for explosive materials varies with net explosive weight (NEW) of munitions, rocket motors, chaff, flares and cartridges.   Air to air munitions, gun ammunition, and rockets have the smallest NEWs per round.  A transport case that is also a storage facility could allow rapid conversion of a civil field for military use, at least for counterair or attack missions.

On the other hand, the Pacific theater is mostly water, which the Air Force is unused to utilizing.  Given that a large number of Pacific airfields are on the coast or near river estuaries, the ability to store munitions on shallow-draft vessels (even barges) will greatly expand the capability to safely store munitions.  A semisubmersible barge might even use water as part of its protective measures, providing both a cofferdam against detonation and a ready means for firefighting.

Afloat prepositioning is a viable option, already used by the USAF for ammunition stocks.  The use of Military Sealift Command vessels could allow support to expeditionary bases over a large area.  MSC operates two Aviation Logistics Support ships (Curtiss and Wright) for the Marine Corps, providing an afloat intermediate depot, and five Maritime Prepositioning ships designed to support a MAGTF for 30 days.

Alternative Aircraft

Alternative aircraft expand the places from which we can operate dramatically.  A light combat aircraft (LCA) which can operate from 6000 ft airstrips not only opens up the number of airfields significantly, but also allows use of airfields which are not located in urban areas and may be more suitable for combat aircraft.  OA-X, ACC’s light attack proposal, might credibly operate from fields as short as 4000 ft, and both candidate aircraft can operate from unimproved facilities.  OA-X would trade the response time of a jet for the endurance and shoestring logistics of a turboprop, greatly expanding the number of suitable airfields in the region, including small island bases. The ability to operate from rough fields may be particularly valuable in countries with deteriorating airport infrastructure.

The ability to operate small force packages from well-distributed airfields has not been a USAF focus in recent years.  The current model of expeditionary basing is oriented towards larger force packages needing a great deal of support.  Light Mobility Aircraft (LiMA), LCA or Fireflies will require lighter basing and logistics, and might be able to make much greater use of local facilities and support, especially for fuel.  Light expeditionary basing would be oriented towards packages that can be deployed via road or sea, or airlifted by C-130 and supported by C-130 and LiMA. If fuel requirements are low enough (as with OA-X and RQM-167) to be supported by local resources, a significant logistical hurdle can be overcome.

The logistics of a distributed airpower capability, expanding on the PACAF drive for “places, not bases”, has global airpower applications.  Given the relative global dearth of airfields ideal for fighter operations (Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia being notable and fortunate exceptions), the ability to operate small, flexible force packages from austere fields should be viewed as a significant enhancement of the Air Force’s Global Reach.  If any of the capabilities discussed here are most widely applicable across the spectrum of global airpower applications, the combination of thin logistical pipelines and LCA/LiMA rises to the top of the pile, regardless of strategy options.  Altering airfields to meet the requirements for fighter operations is a strategy that pays locally, but not globally.  Altering the force structure to operate from more airfields pays off globally.


One of the complementary strategies on the table for containing China is the “hedgehog”.[11]  The Hedgehog is designed to build the military capabilities of regional partners with the stated intent of making those partners more resistant to PRC military pressure and reducing the degree of overmatch provided by the PLA.  The US last engaged in such a strategy in the 1970s with surplus Vietnam War equipment, and has neglected Southeast Asia ever since.

The Indo-Asia-Pacific Region lacks the alliance structure of NATO or the less formal but consistent alignment of Persian Gulf states.  The five treaty partners, Australia, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines are all that is left of an alliance stitched together to counter communist inroads in Asia.  Japan and Korea have a robust basing structure, but only Korean bases are hardened to any appreciable degree.  Australia’s bases are modern but distant, Thailand maintains the Vietnam-era base structure to current standards, but the Philippine airfield structure suffers from poor maintenance and chronic underfunding.  The Philippine Air Force is a shadow of its former self, barely able to train its own pilots.  While there is a modernization program (Flightplan 2028) that has already resulted in the delivery of airlift and rotary wing, the future funding stream remains in doubt.

Other air arms in the region, notably Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, are involved in modernization programs.  Unfortunately, the US has priced itself out of the competitions.  With no aircraft cheaper than F-16, C-130J or Blackhawks, recent contracts for aircraft have gone to KAI, Embraer, Casa, Dornier and Agusta-Westland.  Not only is this a lost opportunity for US industry, but it a lost opportunity do develop a US-influenced hedgehog capability.  A robust air advisory effort, combined with alternative aircraft (some of which are already available),[12] is a necessary precondition to a hedgehog strategy.  Plan Colombia, initiated in 1996, spent roughly 1.8 billion dollars in ten years on building the Colombian military and paid off in spades, resulting in one of the most comprehensively competent air forces in the region and an effective hedge against both Venezuela and Ecuador.


The current focus on defense realignment seems to be largely tech-focuses, and is somewhat disconnected from the coherent execution of a specific strategy capable of coercing China.  Absent an unaffordable expenditure and a counterproductive embrace of attrition warfare with very expensive units and irreplaceable personnel, there is no credible path to victory associated with engaging in a repeat of Imminent Thunder in the PRC’s front yard.  Furthermore, any offset strategy that relies primarily on technology is guaranteed to be transient against an adversary with both a robust scientific and technical infrastructure and a pervasive industrial espionage effort.  A well-designed, enduring offset strategy should be constructed based on factors that are unlikely to change in the short term, such as geography, national characteristics and resource reserves.

The alterations suggested in this paper are largely marginal in terms of dollar expenditures, although they represent an operationally significant reorientation of procurement, organization and training.  While the PRC remains the focus of the SI strategy papers, that stems largely from China’s unique position as a landbased “island” hegemon.  To some extent, the pillars of a Strategic Interdiction strategy are not China-specific, but could be modified to affect any modern globalized economy.  The focus on airpower applications in the maritime domain is heavily influenced by the geography of the Pacific region, but is also not necessarily Pacific-centric.  As always, the inherent flexibility of airpower allows a broadly capable force structure to be “tuned” to the desired application.

[1] The visual horizon is a mite closer than the radar horizon – radar waves bend in a way that photons do not.

[2] A re-engined, ASM-armed B-52 with an ISAR capability could very well become the world’s premier antisurface warfare aircraft. The Navy is already developing long range ISAR for the Super Hornet’s AN/APG-79.

[3] SAR is worthless for ID on a moving target, because a moving target blurs the SAR image. However, virtually any SAR radar can have an ISAR (Inverse SAR) mode that uses target motion to sharpen the picture. In the case of ships, this motion is enhanced by the effects of wave action, making for near-photographic quality images in some cases. This capability need not be built into all aircraft; the ASQ-236 radar reconnaissance pod on the F-15E might be used to give a “strap on” capability. ISAR does not provide an area search capability but MTI, advanced ELINT sensors or other offboard cues might well be sufficient to cue an ISAR snapshot.

[4] All F-15 airframes have four semi-recessed AIM-7 wells; the F-18 has two.

[5] The FLANKER airframes generally carry 10 to 12 AAMs compared to the 8 carried on the F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35.

[6] Col Pietrucha, Michael W. Twenty-First Century Aerial Mining, Air & Space Power Journal, March-April 2015.

[7] The second wave of an amphibious operation may well hold the key to success when assaulting in the face of enemy resistance. Interdiction of the necessary follow-on waves can turn an effective lodgement into a candi-date for evacuation (Tanga, Corrigedor and Gallipoli failed, Anzio, Guadalcanal and Tarawa were near things).

[8] A reconfigured BQM-167 Skeeter target drone might be used for survivable, high-speed, low altitude penetrating reconnaissance and sensor infiltration over land and littoral areas.  Skeeters do not require airfields for landing and recovery and could be operated from islands that do not have an airfield at all.  An RQM-167 would be a relatively inexpensive, reusable aircraft which is runway-independent.

[9] Airdropped unattended ground sensors like IGLOO WHITE might monitor road or rail traffic using short-range signatures, such as noise or vibration. Standoff sensors, including overhead ones, might use other signatures such as the IR signatures created by stressing concrete, asphalt and even dirt with heavy traffic.

[10] F-16, F-22 and F-15C can use 7000’ runways under certain conditions, but 8000 ft is the common runway length for combat-loaded fighters.

[11] Lt Col Jeremy Renken has written a concise summary of the existing proposed strategic architectures at

[12] As examples, the AT-6C and A-29 light attack aircraft are production-ready in the US, the Scorpion maritime patrol aircraft is awaiting a launch customer, Bell’s helicopters are priced within reach of police departments, and the Cessna Caravan is one of the world’s foremost light airlifters.

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