Top Obama administration and Pentagon officials signaled a willingness to temporarily accept China's new, controversial air defense identification zone on Wednesday. Those officials expressed disapproval for the way in which the Asian power has flexed its muscles, and cautioned China not to implement the zone. But they also carved out wiggle room in which the United States and China ultimately could find common ground on the issue, indicating that they may be willing to live with the zone for now -- as long as China backs off its demand that all aircraft traveling through it check in first.
"It wasn't the declaration of the ADIZ that actually was destabilizing," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, America's highest-ranking military officer. "It was their assertion that they would cause all aircraft entering the ADIZ to report regardless of whether they were intending to enter into the sovereign airspace of China. And that is destabilizing."
That's a change from just a few days ago, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden demanded that China take back its declaration of the zone. And it's another demonstration that China's recent decisions have forced the United States to tread carefully. On Wednesday, Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing for more than five hours, according to a senior administration official. In brief public remarks midway through the marathon session, Biden didn't mention the air defense zone at all.
LINTAO ZHANG/AFP/Getty Images
No secrets were spilled. And all of the documents in question are publicly available. But the U.S. Army has nonetheless launched an internal review of its administrative practices after members of a Chinese military delegation began asking for U.S. government manuals a bit too aggressively during a September visit to an American base.
The so-called 15-6 investigation reflects the growing unease within some quarters of the U.S. military and the broader American national security community about how best to engage with China's People's Liberation Army. In recent years, the foundation of the relationship has been an approach best described as you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine. But some are questioning that path, especially now that China has sparked an international incident when it declared a so-called "Air Defense Identification Zone" over disputed territory late last month. Vice President Joe Biden called for that declaration to be taken back on Monday. He is expected to visit Beijing later in the week.
At issue in the Army investigation is the behavior of some members of a seven-person Chinese delegation that travelled to the U.S. in late September. The group, led by Maj. Gen. Chen Dongdeng, the PLA's director of so-called "military engagement," visited the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as part of a two-stop visit that also included Washington, D.C. The goal at Leavenworth: to "participate in an informational exchange" on U.S. Army doctrine and "operational theory," according to an internal Army news story produced at the time. But the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, which hosted the delegation, never sought the approval of the Army's G-2 intelligence directorate and bureaucratic feathers got ruffled as a result.
SpaceX, the plucky little rocket company with unearthly ambition, is trying to become the first American firm in decades to routinely launch large commercial satellites into orbit. And they're about to have their first trial.
If SpaceX succeeds, it's a giant win for all sorts of U.S. technology interests. If they fail, the world is back to relying on the French and the Russians to get their spacecraft in orbit.
It won't be easy. Big commercial satellites are tough to launch. They need to go to geostationary orbit, about 22,000 miles up, and travel fast enough to keep the orbit stable (the International Space Station is only about 250 miles up in low Earth orbit). The advantage is that, to an observer on Earth, the satellite always stays in the same place -- the antenna will always point in the same direction, making it easy use. We use those satellites daily for all kinds of information: Local television stations get feeds from host networks, ATM withdrawals get approval from banks, people on ships or in distant areas use them to speak with one another. To get way out to geostationary orbit, you need a big, expensive rocket, so to get the most bang for their buck the relevant companies make ever-larger, heavier, more capable satellites. The only U.S. company currently capable of such launches is United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has long since priced itself out of the market.
The commercial space business is hugely important. First, rockets use essentially the same technology as missiles (some are, literally, repurposed ICBMs), hence the nervousness surrounding North Korean and Iranian space programs. They are also vital to keeping high-technology business and R&D going, including associated university programs, think tanks, etc. (Think of the U.S. commercial aerospace sector without Boeing.) Finally, space really is the final frontier, and it's generally thought that being better at space launch makes everything related to space that much easier. The government can only afford to support so much of this on its budget; to ease the strain, the United States needs a commercial industry.
For years, SpaceX has been building up to a huge checkpoint: commercial success. Next week's launch (delayed from this week and several times before) will finally determine whether America gets back into the commercial space business, or fails yet again.
How did we get here?
Back in the 1970s, the United States had a virtual monopoly on commercial satellite launches, flying Titan, Atlas, and Delta rockets for satellite communication and television companies. But space launch capabilities are as strategic an industry as ever was, and competition is inevitable. The French Ariane series began launching at the end of that decade, and increasingly capable versions quickly took market share from U.S. companies. Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union really opened up the market: The Soviets had some of the best rockets in the world, and the rapacious capitalism that gripped the new Russia quickly turned quasi-military programs into very affordable commercial launch vehicles.
To compete, the United States turned to Lockheed and Boeing for substantial updates of their Atlas and Delta systems. The resulting Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), the Atlas V and Delta IV, were to compete on the open market, and the U.S. government would reap the benefits of mass production. Demand for commercial satellites was set to explode, brought about by a huge demand for satellite telephone, television, and data services. But that market never really took off; cheap cell phones killed the satphone business, and fiber optic cables kept demand for satellite TV in check. Increasingly strict technology export regulations made information-sharing immensely difficult. A series of sketchy incidents led Boeing and Lockheed to join forces in the form of United Launch Alliance (ULA), ending the realistic idea of domestic competition. With huge cost overruns and without being able to amortize over many launches, the EELVs became increasingly expensive, essentially pricing themselves out of commercial markets altogether, leaving them wholly reliant on a monopoly over U.S. government launches. The U.S. market share for large commercial launches fell from near-monopoly to near-irrelevance.
Enter Elon Musk, the entrepreneur tuned Internet billionaire. Musk started with a simple goal, and the funds to pull it off: Get humans off the Earth and on Mars. Initially he hoped to use Russian rockets, but after long negotiations with the Russians, the costs were still unacceptable. So he began his own company, SpaceX, in 2000. Despite some failures -- virtually inevitable in the industry -- the company has moved at breathtaking speed using the simple philosophy of standardizing everything, building everything in-house, and pushing rocket components out at a furious rate. (For example, the Falcon 9 first stage uses nine engines where similar rockets use one. SpaceX can build an unheard-of 40 engines a year.) The company is deeply involved with reusability, a holy grail with the potential to drastically reduce launch costs. The idea is to build a commercially viable business, and use that money to fund ever-larger and ever-cheaper rockets, culminating in landing crewed missions on Mars.
Tuesday -- or whenever they launch, delays are common -- will be the first big test of that strategy, SpaceX's first launch up to geostationary orbit. SpaceX has around 40 commercial launches on backlog, a big number by any standard, enough to keep them occupied for years. But the company's record is mixed: There is no work of fiction like a future launch schedule, and customers that rely on regularly replacing old satellites will only tolerate so many of the multi-year delays that SpaceX has repeatedly introduced.
While Tuesday's launch will technically be the sixth Falcon 9 launch, it is only the second of the v1.1 rocket, which incorporates such substantial modifications to the fuel tanks and fuel supply systems that it is in many ways a new rocket. The risks -- and thus insurance costs -- of launching on a new rocket are huge, and of course nobody will want to fly on a rocket that doesn't work (as is standard, many SpaceX customers have scheduled backup launches with other companies). It also marks the first launch from the Cape Canaveral, Florida pad, which must work exactly as predicted.
Launching into space is difficult enough that engineers and enthusiasts hold their breath for every single launch, and even the most reliable rockets have had unexpected failures; most space launch companies have lost rockets and destroyed the payloads, some of them repeatedly. Tuesday's launch will be a very risky one, and certainly one to watch.
Tensions between the United States, Japan and China took a new turn Monday night when Vice President Joe Biden asked China to rescind the air defense identification zone it established Nov. 23 over contested islands in the East China Sea. Things could soon get even more interesting, however: the Navy's new P-8A Poseidon planes are arriving in Japan this week, offering the ability to destroy submarines, interdict ships and conduct surveillance on open seas.
The U.S. military insists the deployment of the P-8s has nothing to do with current friction between China, which has increased since the Asian giant created an area off its coast that it says other militaries must seek permission to use. In fact, the Pentagon first announced the deployment of the planes to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa in October as part of a broader realignment that will also eventually include the deployment of more MV-22 Ospreys and F-35B Joint Strike Fighters from the Marine Corps and R-Q4 Global Hawk surveillance drones operated by the Air Force.
China responded by forming the air defense identification zone, or ADIZ. U.S. and Japanese officials reiterated Monday their militaries will not respect it, setting the stage for a possible altercation with the Chinese. The United States already has demonstrated as much, sending two unarmed B-52 bombers from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam on Nov. 27 over the contested islands in the East China Sea, which the Chinese call the Diaoyus and the Japanese call the Senkakus.
On Monday, Vice President Biden asked China to take back its threat against unannounced aircraft in the ADIZ, saying failure to do so could lead to a dangerous altercation with Japan and its allies, including the United States. That occurred just hours after the Navy announced that the first of its new Poseidon planes had arrived in Japan. They will replace the aging P-3 Orion aircraft the Navy's 7th Fleet has used for years in the region, Navy officials said.
Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday that the P-8s will arrive in Japan in coming weeks. A Navy official told Foreign Policy the last of the planes could leave from Jacksonville, Fla., for Japan by Friday. They're armed with aerial torpedoes that target enemy submarines from the sky. A variant of the plane also will be fielded by India's Navy.
The P-8 is built by Boeing and was first received by the Navy in 2010. The service now has about 12 and expects to ultimately field 117. Rear Adm. Matt Carter, commander of the Navy's patrol and reconnaissance group, said in a news release last week that it's essential at a time when the number of submarines in the world is rapidly expanding.
"Other countries are either building or purchasing advanced, quiet, and extremely hard to find submarines and we need to be able to match that technology to be able to detect them," Carter said.
China has been expanding its own air arsenal. The U.S.-China and Security Review Commission warned the House Armed Services Committee in November about the Hongzha-6K, its new long-range bomber. It's an upgraded model of the twin-engine plane the Chinese have used for decades, but it has some significant bells and whistles - including the likely ability to carry cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
UPDATE, 4:05 p.m.: This blog entry elicited the following reaction from Chris Harmer, a retired naval aviator and analyst with the Institute for the Study of War:
@NoahShachtman LOL pay no attention to the P-8, it has NOTHING to do with China! Navy PR always good for a laugh...— chris harmer (@Navyharmer) December 3, 2013
Photo courtesy Boeing
Christine Fox, a former defense official and Hollywood inspiration, will be the new Deputy Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, making her, at least temporarily, the highest-ranking woman ever in the Defense Department. She replaces the outgoing Ash Carter, who retires Wednesday as the Pentagon's equivalent of a Chief Operating Officer.
Fox, the former director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE, office, led Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's Strategic Choices and Management Review, the top-to-bottom assessment of Pentagon spending and resources that framed the decisions to be made in the age of cutbacks and sequester.
Fox's appointment is temporary until an individual for the permanent job can be identified, vetted and confirmed, a senior defense official said. That's a process that could still take many weeks - or months.
"I think we're getting close," a senior defense official told Foreign Policy, referring to the final choice for a permanent candidate.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Fox a "brilliant defense thinker and proven manager" in a statement released Tuesday morning. "She will be able to help me shape our priorities from day one because she knows the intricacies of the department's budget, programs and global operations better than anyone," Hagel said.
Fox is not thought to be in the running for the permanent position, defense officials said. But given the ability of the Senate to confirm White House nominees, she could be in the position for at least several months.
Fox will not require Senate confirmation. Under what's known as the Federal Vacancy Reform Act, the President can designate a senior employee to serve in a senior job if that the individual has served in a senior role in the Department for at least 90 days within the last year.
Fox's appointment means she will become the first woman to serve as Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense - and the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon ever. She is also a bit of a celebrity, at least for the Pentagon: she was the inspiration for the Kelly McGillis character "Charlie" in the Tom Cruise movie about Navy fly boys, Top Gun.
Still on the short list for the permanent position is Bob Work, the Navy's former No. 2 civilian, now at the Center for a New American Security. Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale is well liked and could also get the nod, although some officials describe him as wanting to retire after being in the job since early 2009.
Fox will have her work cut out for her. While some see her as a perfect fit who can hit the ground running, she is also viewed as someone who is too Navy-oriented (she used to run the Center for Naval Analyses, now CNA) and her work as director of CAPE may not be seen as preparing her for "the whole enchilada" of running the Department.
Carter -- who became former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's "alter ego" -- was heavily involved in running the day-to-day operations of the Department. That has begun to change under Hagel, who has yet to possess the institutional knowledge required for the job but has signaled that he wants to be a more hands-on Pentagon chief. That left Carter, considered to know the building well and someone who had established strong managerial chops, somewhat frustrated about his role. Carter had been considered for the Pentagon's top job but was passed over when Hagel got the nod, and it seemed only a matter of time before he would leave.
Fox had worked closely with Carter while she was a CAPE, but she had come in under Hagel's direction to lead the strategic review. While she has analytic and budgetary credentials, she will need to get up to speed as a manager with such a broad portfolio, experts said. And, some have criticized Fox for presenting budgetary choices that were politically palatable but who was less inclined to push for less damaging options.
Fox has kept a low-profile until after leaving CAPE and the Pentagon. But in September, she penned an op-ed in Defense News titled "Stop Pretending Forced Cuts Won't Be Harmful." In it, she argued: "There needs to be a serious national dialogue on what a sensible, sustainable and strategically sound defense budget looks like," adding: "But let's drop the illusion that by efficiency nip and managerial tuck the US military can absorb cuts of this size and of this immediacy without significant consequences for America's interests and influence in the world."
Still, given her knowledge of the building and the budget process, she was considered a no-brainer, especially in a pinch, as the Obama administration scrambles to fill jobs during a presidency that has stumbled in its second term. But Fox's appointment could be useful to Hagel.
"Over the last five years, Christine has played a key role in helping shape solutions to the core challenges facing the Department of Defense," a senior defense official at the Pentagon said in a statement. "Secretary Hagel quickly came to trust Christine's judgment and deep analytical expertise through her leadership of the Strategic Choices and Management Review. Simply put, no one knows the issues as well as Christine and in this new role she will hit the ground running like no one else can."
There had been some thought to giving the temporary job to a service secretary -- say, the Army's John McHugh -- as a stopgap measure. But installing Fox means the senior leadership team at the Pentagon can stay in their jobs.
The $8 billion U.S war on drugs and instability in Colombia has pressed U.S. special operators, air crews and other personnel into a decade-plus operation to solidify security in the South American country. But the controversial mission will likely wind down soon: Colombian officials say they are winning the fight, and the two countries want to move to a new relationship based more closely on shared economic interests, said a senior U.S. administration official.
The comments came a day before Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to meet with President Obama in Washington on an official visit. The U.S.'s security assistance package for Colombia "was always designed to be phased out" as conditions on the ground improved, and "in fact it has been improving" the U.S. administration official said. Ending or revising the mission would mark a significant shift in the sometimes controversial relationship between the two countries, which has centered heavily since 1999 on curbing Colombia's cocaine production and the violent drug lords and insurgent groups funded by them.
Colombia defense minister Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno compared his country's battle to attain peace to an American football game on Monday, saying Colombia is in the "red zone," close to scoring a metaphorical touchdown against the violence that has plagued Colombia since the 1960s. But he warned the fight isn't over yet.
"We're in the red zone already, but we're not [past] the goal line yet. So, we've got to make it there," he said during an appearance at the Brookings Institution, an independent think tank in Washington. "We don't want to spike the ball on the 10-yard line. That would be a terrible mistake. We really need to keep doing what we're doing."
If that sounds like a contradiction with the White House's point of view, it likely all comes down to timing. U.S. Army Special Forces and other special operators are expected to continue training the Colombian security forces for the foreseeable future as part of Plan Colombia, the broad-based plan first agreed to by former President Clinton. Since 2000, the U.S. has spent about $8 billion on it, according to a November 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service. That money paid for airplanes, helicopters and development programs overseen by the Statement Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development as the Colombians rooted out notorious organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The defense minister cited a variety of statistics Monday while underscoring the progress in Colombia. There were about 30,000 homicides and 3,000 kidnappings there in 2000, he said, but those numbers have dropped to about 15,000 and 300 annually. At the same time, Colombia fell behind neighboring Peru as the number-one producer of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine. The defense minister said Monday he realizes the war on drugs has its critics, but said fighting it led to a reduction in funding for violent organizations, which in turn led to a reduction in violence.
U.S. special operators played no small role in that. A report released by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in May said elite forces from all four branches of the U.S. military have deployed to Colombia since 2000, working closely with Colombian commandos.
"Aided by their U.S. counterparts, Colombian [special operations forces] have led operations that have decimated the FARC, demobilized paramilitary groups and re-established a government presence in every Colombian municipality for the first time in decades," the report said. "... Colombia today is safer and more stable than it has been in generations."
As of 2008, the U.S. had provided the Colombian military 72 helicopters with support services done by the U.S. Army. Conventional U.S. Navy and Marine Corps units also have participated in an interdiction program in which drugs are seized on Colombia's coastal waters and rivers.
Plan Colombia has had its critics, however. In 2008, the GAO noted that U.S.-funded counternarcotics efforts focused primarily on the aerial spraying of crops did not reduce the production of cocaine as much as hoped, in part because farmers responded by implementing effective countermeasures that protected their plants. Human Rights organizations, including Amnesty International, also have called for the U.S. to end military aid, citing allegations of torture, abuse and killing civilians.
Colombia's defense minister, did not bring any of that up on Monday. He did say, however, that his country is open to exploring new relationships in which Colombia's military train forces from other countries in Central America and the Caribbean. Any effort to do so, he said, would be "funded by your funds, but done by our experts, both on police activities and military activities."
EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images
The CEO of the world's biggest telecommunications equipment maker, which for years has been labeled by U.S. officials as a proxy for Chinese military and intelligence agencies, says he's giving up on America.
In a rare interview on Nov. 25 with French journalists, Ren Zhengfei, the 69-year-old founder and CEO of China-based Huawei, said he would no longer look for business in the United States, in the wake of accusations from lawmakers and government officials that the company is a de facto arm of the Chinese authorities. "If Huawei gets in the middle of U.S-China relations," and causes problems, "it's not worth it," Ren reportedly said, according to a Chinese transcript of the interview. "Therefore, we have decided to exit the U.S. market, and not stay in the middle."
It wasn't immediately clear what Ren meant by "exit" the market, but for the company, the U.S. market could easily be described as hostile. Lawmakers have exhorted U.S. firms to stop doing business with Huawei, and federal regulators have tried to block the spread of the company's equipment in the United States
William Plummer, a Huawei vice president and the company's point person in Washington, told Foreign Policy, "It is true that Huawei has adjusted our priority focus to markets that welcome competition and investment, like Europe," adding that Ren is "making a comment on the current market environment." The company's overseas business is thriving. It has offices in 18 countries and has invested billions of dollars building communications networks in Africa.
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.
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 Air/Naval Operations (C:MANO), 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.
J-11 fighters. Via Chinesedefence.com.Battle plan
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. The daily flight is in many ways just 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 members 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.
Air Self-Defense Force F-15J fighters. Via Wikipedia.
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) 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-15s.
A separate pair of F-15s is patrolling directly over the inhabited Ryukyus. The fighters are part of 204 Hikotai, a squadron based in Okinawa.
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 U.S. Air Force, 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. The Chinese are not aware of the second pair of F-15Js or the Raptor flight.
JASDF units begin to track unknown contacts. Yellow icons are China, Blue are Japan and United States. C:MANO screen grab.Ambush!
It's another tense day over the East China Sea as the Japanese P-3 lumbers toward the Senkakus, 50 miles to the west. Two miles distant at the Orion's eight o'clock are its two F-15 escorts.
The plan is to fly west, overfly the Senkaku Islands of Uotsuri and Kuba, and then return to Okinawa. The F-15s 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-11s. The F-15s 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 toward the potentially hostile contacts.
With both sides racing toward 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-15s' cockpits. Missile launches from the opposing warplanes! The Japanese are under attack.
The F-15s swiftly counterattack. Each Japanese fighter has just two AAM-4 missiles. To maximize their chances of downing a Chinese fighter, the F-15 pilots would want to target only two J-11s 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-11 and 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-15s. Despite being an inferior missile, the Chinese PL-12s have the advantage of numbers. The F-15s 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-15s wink off radar screens.
In the meantime, the four Japanese AAM-4s down one J-11, leaving three still flying. The three remaining J-11s, followed by four J-10s, roar through the sudden tear in the Japanese air defenses.
Minutes after firing their volley of long-range missiles, the second flight of F-15Js has turned away, following behind the P-3C Orion. C:MANO screen grab.Counterattack
Seconds after the Chinese fighters have been identified, the second pair of F-15s flying near Miyako island turn north to assist their squadron mates. Lighting their afterburners, the F-15s raced toward 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-15 pilots watch as their comrades disappear from radar.
As the Chinese J-11s chase down the Orion, the surviving F-15s focus their attack, assigning two AAM-4 missiles per J-11, starting with the lead plane. Two Chinese jets go down in flames.
Out of missiles, the second flight of F-15s 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 toward the raging air battle at around 1,000 miles per hour.
The Chinese are on a collision course with the deadliest fighters ever made.
F-22 Raptors. U.S. Air Force photo.Raptor down
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 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 retarget 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 commanders 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 though Chinese missiles have a low kill probability, the J-10s and J-11s hurled at least a dozen of them at a single Raptor. One got through.
P-3C Orion. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user GT ARTS, Inc.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 possibly their pilots -- is secondary to defending the P-3 and its 12 crew members.
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 United States and Japan had an extra four F-15s and F-22s in the battle zone.
Still, the Chinese have managed to shoot down the first two F-15s lost in air-to-air combat since the Eagle 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 Japan Air Self-Defense Force 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 United States 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 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 United States.
Although just a simulation, my skirmish over the Senkakus has brought up some interesting points worth considering. The relative advantages of both sides make for a compelling argument for either side that it 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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John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.