Distance is the primary challenge the US military faces in East Asia

Tuesday, December 13th, 2022

The US is rapidly compensating for the short range of its fighter aircraft, Austin Vernon explains:

China’s response [to the US] is to invest in weapons that keep American planes and ships from getting close to the Chinese mainland. Their strategy is known as anti-access area denial (A2AD). The technological change driving this strategy is cheaper sensors that enable missiles to hit planes and ships hundreds of miles away. Munition effectiveness and logistics intensity dramatically improve. The strategy has an asymmetric advantage since missiles are cheaper than platforms like aircraft carriers.


Distance is the primary challenge the US military faces in East Asia. The military designed our weapons and supply lines for Europe, where distances are tiny and basing options are numerous. The root cause of the current distress is that carrier strike groups are vulnerable to mass missile attacks and must operate further away from the battle space, causing fighters to lose effectiveness. The two most critical impacted missions are destroying enemy warships and contesting airspace. China can’t invade most of our allies without ships, and ceding the air makes it difficult to kill their ships.

America needs weapons to cover for the deficiency of existing platforms. Opportunities include longer-range missiles, adapting platforms that can operate without carriers, and thwarting missile attacks.


Long-range stealth bombers are essential for projecting power in East Asia since basing options might be limited, and stealth will be critical to maintaining survivability without persistent fighter cover. The Air Force has gone to great lengths to keep its newest stealth bomber, the B-21, on time and budget. The Air Force Rapid Capability Office manages the program instead of using the traditional procurement process. The project has kept requirements constant, and the design has advanced technology but nothing bleeding edge. For example, the B-21 uses the same engine as the F-35 to save development time and reduce costs. Northrop Grumman also designed the plane to minimize maintenance and sustainment costs. Typically the Air Force and Congress are cutting plane orders due to budget overruns at this point in the process. They are looking at increasing planned B-21 numbers instead. The public rollout happened in December 2022.

It is hard to overstate how important having hundreds of these bombers will be to US power projection in East Asia because they make any Chinese target vulnerable to attack even if carrier aircraft are ineffective.


Unpowered munitions like gravity bombs and artillery shells are taking a back seat to missiles and rockets as range becomes critical for platform survival. But classical cruise missiles are too expensive for everyday usage. The US and other nations are striving for cheap missiles.

The Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMRLS) rocket that fires from HIMARS and the M270 is a perfect example of the shift. It can hit critical targets far behind enemy lines that are too dangerous for aircraft or too far for tube artillery. Each round costs ~$100,000 – a bargain compared to most cruise missiles that cost millions. The warhead (90 kg) and range (80 km) are smaller than cruise missiles, but the rocket can destroy an ammo depot, troop concentrations, or a headquarters.

Suicide drones or “loitering munitions” are another variation of cheap missiles. The Iranian Shahed-136 costs $20,000-$50,000 and has a 1000+ km range. It sacrifices speed (120 km/h), payload (40 kg), and survivability to achieve cost and range goals. Other drones, like the American Switchblade, serve as squad weapons that improve on mortars.

The Air Force “Gray Wolf” program’s goal was a $100,000 subsonic cruise missile with a 400 km range and a 230 kg warhead. It successfully tested a low-cost engine, and other programs absorbed the follow-on phases. The engine is the Kratos TDI-J85 which can meet the program goals while costing less than $40,000. Kratos already has multiple customers using it for drones and missiles.

Notably, Boeing wants to use the TDI-J85 engine to power its 230 kg JDAM bomb, giving it a 370 km to 750 km range (depending on configuration). The US could lob more QUICKSINK-equipped JDAM cruise missiles in an engagement than the Chinese Navy has vertical launch tubes — all for less than the cost of a frigate. The munition would be 1/10 the price of a Harpoon Block II anti-ship missile with double the range.


A quirk of the US military is that the Army is responsible for most ground-based missile defense, even on Air Force bases, leading to incentive mismatches. The Navy, which faces an existential threat in anti-ship missiles, has had an automated battle management system in AEGIS for forty years. The Army is trying to field a similar protocol with its Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) to manage air defense radars and weapons.


It isn’t hard to shoot down low-end suicide drones, but it can be expensive. Saudi Arabia regularly shoots down Iranian Shaheds with million-dollar air defense missiles. Classic anti-aircraft guns with modern fire control have proven effective in Ukraine, and bullets are much cheaper than drones. Vehicles like the German Gephard are great when defending a wide area because the drones are so slow that vehicles can redeploy to shoot them down.

In East Asia, the US will be defending relatively small positions. One or two Centurion Counter Rocket Artillery Rocket (C-RAM) Gatling guns could probably defend Andersen Air Force Base on Guam.


Ballistic missiles are a top threat to carriers and US bases in the region. Base hardening, more ammo for existing anti-ballistic missile systems, denying the Chinese intel on ship and aircraft positions, and gaining early warning of Chinese strikes are critical to defending against these weapons.

Bases in Okinawa would be under constant threat from cruise missiles, but only China’s priciest ballistic missiles can reach Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base. Airfields are notoriously hard to take offline. Munitions designed to crater runways only keep a base offline for a few hours. The US has made recent improvements at Andersen AFB, like armoring fuel lines, adding a hardened maintenance hanger, and making fuel bladders available to replace damaged storage tanks.

The worst-case scenario is a surprise attack that kills personnel and destroys aircraft on the ground. The Air Force plans to use smaller dispersal bases to keep the Chinese guessing where the planes are. Investments in better dispersal options and more base hardening (like aircraft shelters for bases on Okinawa) would be beneficial. It would be a win if the Chinese waste their limited amounts of $10-$20 million ballistic missiles to crater a few runways.

The Chinese will find it harder to target Navy ships since they move. Even the fanciest missile is useless if you can’t find the carriers. If a conflict does escalate to space, China will quickly lose its ability to spot the US fleet with satellites. The Navy would expend incredible effort to splash any drones or submarines trying to break into the Pacific to find strike groups. Our carriers could have more freedom of movement than assumed.

The US has invested heavily in ballistic missile defense over the last few decades. There is typically a battery of THAAD missile interceptors deployed in Guam. And the Navy can fire SM-3 and SM-6 missiles at incoming threats. The record for these systems in testing and limited combat use is exemplary, with 90%+ success rates. They are also cheaper than the high-end Chinese missiles they counter. The only issue is that there might not be enough missiles in the theater to counter saturation attacks. Manufacturing more missiles and keeping an adequate number of AEGIS-guided missile ships in East Asia is critical. A credible active defense would force the Chinese to shoot their most valuable missiles in wasteful barrages that drain their missile inventory.


The AIM-260 air-to-air missile is a fast-track program nearing completion. It nearly doubles the range of the mainstay AIM-120 and is ~20% faster. That allows it to exceed the performance of the Chinese J-15 air-to-air missiles and gives our fighters extra legs. Low-rate production could already be underway.

Having more missiles in the air to handle Chinese mass attacks is also critical. An idea floated by the Pentagon and analysts is to equip bombers with long-range air-to-air missiles, allowing them to act like a missile magazine to support frontline fighters.

The AGM-88 HARM missile is the primary weapon for US aircraft to counter surface-to-air missile batteries. It homes in on their radar signals and forces the enemy to turn off their radar and move or eat a missile. A new extended-range version is faster and can go up to 300 km, allowing US fighters and bombers to counter longer-range surface-to-air missiles.


Cargo planes loaded with thousands of missiles or QUICKSINK JDAMs free up bombers to hit challenging targets like command and control bunkers or hardened bases and let tankers focus on getting the maximum amount of fighters into the battle to clear the skies.


Drones can absorb some fighter roles and make them more productive. But the current crop of inexpensive drones that highlight conflicts in Ukraine or Armenia are poorly suited for the Indo-Pacific theater. Most US bases are thousands of kilometers from Taiwan, eliminating smaller drones and quadcopters. Slow drones like TB-2 or Predator are not survivable in contested airspace. Drones must be expendable or much more capable to add value to US power projection.

One example is the RQ-180. The Air Force has never acknowledged its existence, but the rumors and evidence are strong that it exists. It replaces the Global Hawk in the high altitude, theater-wide surveillance mission. The Global Hawk has close to zero survivability and can’t function against near-peer threats. The RQ-180 is a flying wing like the B-2 and is stealthy, allowing it to operate in contested airspace. It likely costs hundreds of millions per copy, but small drones can’t replace it.

The Scan Eagle and its successor, the RQ-21 Blackjack, are current “attritable” surveillance drones. They are capable aircraft with high-end sensors, the ability to laser designate targets, and 16 hours of loiter time. The Navy and Marines have hundreds but want to replace them. Newer drones in this class have vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability, allowing them to ditch expensive launching/landing systems. Software flies the drones and soldiers only input waypoints. The competition is fierce, with AeroEnvironment’s Jump 20 and Shield AI’s V-Bat as examples. These drones are more capable than the RQ-21 at a fraction of the acquisition and operating cost, costing less than $1 million per unit even at low rate production. A limitation is they can’t stray more than ~150 km from the base station. Some obvious solutions are to use StarLink, drone relays, or autonomous software that can broadcast findings over the tactical data net. Much of the cost is in sensors, less expensive ones would make the drones more expendable. Production could ramp up fast because scrappy companies are the prime contractors.


Tankers and aerial refueling are the backbones of the US Air Force’s power projection, especially in East Asia. They are nearly as critical for the Navy. Tanker vulnerability is one reason why 24/7 combat air patrols over Taiwan from bases or carriers further than Guam are challenging. Fueling the patrols would stretch the tanker force thin while exposing them to Chinese attack. The Chinese Air Force could “lose the battle, but win the war” by bull rushing the few fighters on station, running them out of missiles, then splashing the string of valuable tankers leading back to US bases.


  1. bob sykes says:

    One has to be skeptical about the ability of stealth aircraft to penetrate modern air defenses, especially Russian air defenses. Some 30 years ago the Serbs shot down one F-117A and damaged another so badly it was scrapped. They used SAM’s and radars that were obsolescent even then.

    Now all of our enemies have samples of our stealth technology, and have built versions of their own. They have had 3 decades to improve their air defenses against stealth.

    What the US Air Force and Navy really need is long range, heavy bomber, missile trucks that could carry hypersonic weapons to the edge of an air defense zone. Then let the hypersonic weapons do the penetration.

    The B-52 is actually the best vehicle we have for this job. It has a longer range and larger payload than our other bombers. It is also much cheaper. Unfortunately they are old. A new generation of B-52 like bombers is needed. You could likely get 5 to 10 new B-52 planes for the cost of 1 B-21.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    The assumption here is that China would respond to the kind of US/NATO unprovoked aggression they have seen so often (Iraq, Libya, Serbia, Afghanistan) by fighting at the level the US/NATO chose to use.

    Much more likely is that China would respond to US/NATO aggression by cutting off the head of the snake — eliminating the Washington DC and Brussels swamps, which is easily within Chinese capabilities. Game over.

    Or they could simply embargo all exports to the US & Europe, bringing us to our knees.

    Time for US/NATO to wake up and smell the coffee.

  3. Johns Benton says:

    China may not survive the decade even if nothing dramatic happens internationally. The empire is stretched very thin.

  4. Altitude Zero says:

    Any war with Communist China would likely be a protracted conflict, extending over months or years, so the question becomes, not just whose weapons are superior, but how easily such weapons can be mass produced and supplied to the fighting front. Modern wars are still won and lost in the factory.

  5. Contaminated NEET says:

    Oooooohhhh, war with China – what a joke! They wouldn’t even need to fight. They could stop sending us goods for a week and we’d be on our knees. Our traitorous leaders sent all our industry over there for a couple extra percentage points on a quarterly report 20 years ago, and now they think we’re going to fight them and win? I’d like to see them try it.

  6. Cassander says:

    The B-52 has a smaller capacity than the B-1, and similar to that of the B-2. It is also about the size of a 767. The US is buying KC-46s for about $200 million each — there’s no chance of a similar sized bomber getting made any cheaper than that — meaning it maybe costs 1/2 to 1/3 of what a B-21 costs, not 1/5 or 1/10. The B-21 is what the air force needs, not a massive target pretending to be a bomb truck.

  7. Jim says:

    What kind of a glide ratio can you get out of a bomb-sized subsonic glider?

  8. Jim says:

    Gavin: “Much more likely is that China would respond to US/NATO aggression by cutting off the head of the snake — eliminating the Washington DC and Brussels swamps, which is easily within Chinese capabilities.”



  9. Altitude Zero says:

    The B-21 may be every bit as good as the AF says it is. The question is, how many can we produce, deploy, and replace? History indicates that everyone always thinks that the coming war will be short. The record of conflict between Great Powers indicates that this is very seldom the case. Can B-21′s be mass produced, like B-17′s and B-24′s of 75 years ago? I have no idea. I hope that someone does.

  10. Cassander says:

    The B-21 can’t be produced that way. but the B-24 had a max takeoff weight about equal to that of an F-35, with less payload and way less accurate munitions. And we’re making as many of them a year as the Chinese have made J-20s, period. I agree that a great power conflict won’t be short, but I’m comfortable in America’s degree of aerial superiority production if it isn’t.

  11. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Cassander: “I agree that a great power conflict won’t be short, but I’m comfortable in America’s degree of aerial superiority production if it isn’t.”

    We should be very careful about extrapolating from Great Power vs Goatherd conflicts to actual direct Great Power conflict. US versus Taliban can (and did) go on for years, resulting in US defeat, and no-one in the US cares. Great Power conflict is different. The US would not be able to shrug it off if China sank a couple of US aircraft carriers, nor could China shrug of an analogous battle loss. Very high probability that whichever side took a serious loss would escalate. Then it would be Goodnight Eileen.

    As for US aircraft production superiority, we really have to wonder about the supply chain. How many parts of high-end aircraft are imported? How much of the materials are imported (eg titanium from — oops! — Russia)? What about the tools used, and the sub-components of those tools? In the unlikely event that a Great Power conflict did drag on, there is a high probability that the US would find holes in the supply chain. China might face similar problems, but it would have the advantage of having a much bigger, more modern manufacturing base to co-opt.

  12. Cassander says:


    Theres a huge amount of effort in DoD to verify that U.S. military gear is made domestically or by approved foreigners. This is much aided by the fact that the U.S. is far and away the global leader of the aerospace industry, unlike with e.g. ships. Are they perfect? Definitely not. But there is a massive effort and it has an effect.

    As to things escalating to nuclear conflict, in any U.S./China conflict, preventing it from getting nuclear is going to be the focus of us policy makers. I can see a lot of plausible paths for that to happen, and a lot of ways for them to fuck it up. The goal of U.S. Defense policy should be making sure we never have to find out if they’re up to the challenge.

  13. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “The goal of U.S. Defense policy should be making sure we never have to find out if they’re up to the challenge.”

    Indeed! Fully agree. Apparently, the Biden* MalAdministration does not. Hence their very dangerous continual expansion of the proxy war in the Ukraine. Unless the US “leadership” changes course, nuclear war is tragically inevitable.

  14. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Cassander: “Theres a huge amount of effort in DoD to verify that U.S. military gear is made domestically or by approved foreigners.”

    No doubt there is. But what would we find if we scratch the surface?

    I keep returning to the time when I needed to replace the spark plugs in my old truck. Went to the auto store and bought a set of mother & apple pie All American OEM AC Delco spark plugs. Solid & beautifully made. Packet in small letters noted “Made in China”.

    Go to the hardware store and look at the nuts & bolts, the saws, the hammers. Mostly “Made in China”. Remember the fuss some years back that the US military was paying $800 for a hammer? If someone had to set up a production line in the US to make a few hammers, then $800 would not be an unlikely price. And the steel for the hammer would probably be imported anyway.

    If we look at the bolts and the electric motors and sensors inside the machine tools in US factories which build US military jets, we might be surprised to find how many imported parts they contain. In a similar factory in China, I would bet there are very few imported parts.

    Military power rests on manufacturing capabilities. And we all can see that much of that former US capability is now in China & Mexico.

  15. Smart thing to do is bring everyone home. Unless you believe China is planning an invasion of the our west coast.


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