It will not be feasible to match China fighter for fighter and missile for missile

Thursday, February 8th, 2024

During a July 2023 wargame, the Mitchell Institute tasked experienced operators, technologists, and engineers from the Air Force and defense industry to assess how a mix of uncrewed CCA (collaborative combat aircraft) and crewed combat aircraft could achieve air superiority over a peer aggressor (China):

One of the most important insights is the potential to use CCA as lead forces to help disrupt and suppress China’s advanced integrated air defense system (IADS), improve the lethality and survivability of the Air Force’s counterair forces, and magnify the service’s capacity to project combat mass into highly contested battlespaces. Experts agreed it will not be feasible to match China fighter for fighter and missile for missile in today’s battlespace, given the Air Force’s fighter force is now less than half the size it was in 1991. Accordingly, all three wargame teams proposed CONOPS that initially used CCA at scale to disrupt China’s IADS and level the playing field against the PLAAF.


All three wargame teams also chose to use a mix of CCA variants designed as airborne sensors, decoys, jammers, or weapon launchers to disrupt and stimulate the PLA’s IADS, locate its critical nodes, and begin to attrit threats to support crewed aircraft operations. Dispersing these functions across a mix of CCA would improve the Air Force’s operational resiliency and increase the number of airborne targets an adversary’s forces must attack. By design, lower-cost CCA may lack the mission systems and full functionalities of 5th generation fighters. However, an adversary has no reliable way of differentiating between how CCA are equipped and must address them all as threats. The key is understanding that CCA — in the same way remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) sensor-shooters pioneered a new way of conducting precision strikes — will be more than intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) information gatherers.

Another insight is that CCA could increase the Air Force’s capacity to generate lethal mass for counterair operations. Appropriately equipped CCA can perform as force multipliers that increase the number of sensors and weapons the Air Force can project into contested battlespaces. CCA could also extend the sensor and weapon ranges of stealthy crewed aircraft they team with, increasing their lethality and survivability. This will require designing CCA with enough survivability to ensure they can reach their air-to-air weapons launch points in contested environments. Using CCA to reduce attrition of Air Force fighters and their crews would also have a major force multiplying effect over the course of a campaign — a key consideration given that DOD-mandated force cuts over the last 30 years caused the Air Force to divest its combat attrition reserves.


CCA could multiply the Air Force’s diminished combat inventory in another way: by enabling some of its non-stealthy combat aircraft to engage in the fight for air superiority in highly contested environments. For instance, notional CCA designs available to Mitchell Institute’s wargame experts included a long-range, air-launched design that carried two air-to-air weapons or four 250-pound class Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs). The experts used 4th generation F-15EXs and B-52 bombers operating outside the range of China’s IADS to launch these counterair CCA into contested area

Experts participating in Mitchell’s wargame also preferred to use a mix of lower-cost CCA they classified as expendable systems and more capable, moderate-cost CCA that can be recovered and regenerated for additional sorties or attritted if mission needs require in highly contested battlespaces. Experts chose to use expendable CCA in significant numbers during the first few days of their campaigns as airborne decoys, jammers, active emitters, and other ways that risked their loss in highly contested environments. And since these notional CCA could be ground-launched by rockets without the need to use runways, wargame experts chose to pre-position them at dispersed locations in the Philippines and Ryukyu Islands to improve the resiliency of the Air Force’s combat sortie generation operations. As their campaigns progressed, experts shifted toward using a larger number of moderate-cost recoverable/attritable CCA that carried larger payloads of weapons and could return to their forward operating locations to regenerate for additional sorties.

Finally, wargame experts suggested there is a need to develop concepts for operating CCA with other uncrewed aerial vehicles for counterair missions rather than solely using them as adjuncts for crewed aircraft. Of note, operating CCA in this way would require providing them with more advanced autonomy and other technologies that add to their cost.


  1. Peter says:

    How would the United States react if China detonated a nuclear EMP weapon in the skies above Taiwan? Do sovereign nations have the right to use nuclear weapons to resolve a frozen civil war within their internationally recognized borders? In most nuclear war scenarios, the response to a nuclear strike is to retaliate with a second strike proportional to the original strike. But in this case, China is striking its own territory. An American second strike on the Chinese invasion force would not be proportional. It would be a massive escalation, so the USA would have to forgo nuclear retaliation. China has an opportunity to use nuclear weapons to win a war and get away with it.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    The US also will not be able to match the Chinese CCA’s. It will be swamped by the shear numbers of Chinese weapons systems.

    China now has one-third of the world’s manufacturing capacity, and China’s factories are the world’s leaders in automation, efficiency, and cost reduction. They are on a path to getting fully one-half of the world’s industrial capacity.

    While no one in Washington was paying attention, India slipped into the number two slot of world’s largest economies, behind China and ahead of the US, which is third. Japan is currently 4th, but Russia is 5th and gaining fast on Japan.

    Will the US eventually fall to 4th? It seems unlikely, but a descent into factional violence, which is very possible, if not foreordained, would collapse a large part of our economy.

    BRICS 10 has a large share of the world’s economy and population than does the G7. The era of Western domination is over.

  3. Jim says:

    Peter: “Do sovereign nations have the right to use nuclear weapons to resolve a frozen civil war within their internationally recognized borders?”

    China is the U.N.’s bitch, and the U.S.’s power to ignore the U.N. is proportional to the U.S.’s power to BTFO China.

  4. VXXC says:

    I don’t at all know why we want to go to war with China, in particular over Taiwan as Taiwan itself has apparently no will to build their Island into a Finland, including a high tech Finland. Taiwan shows NO will to fight, just buy expensive US weapons it probably won’t use to great effect, if at all.

    However, I’m questioning the Chinese ability to project into air or sea competently other than drones, which are of course dangerous, they are not pilots – which China DOESN’T have, nor Aircraft which they’re having a bit of a problem with. China is some years away from our experience of air and sea power or our ability. Being able to manufacture isn’t the same as fielding fleets in the air or on the sea.

    This isn’t to at all [ever] underestimate the enemy, however the Doomers ‘it’s all over’ doesn’t wear well.

    We have no need to go to war with China. Taiwan by the way shows no will to fight, they’ve gutted their land forces. It’s cosmetic. Denmark 1940 in the Pacific.

  5. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    “I don’t at all know why we want to go to war with China, in particular over Taiwan.”

    Microchips come from several countries, mostly Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Very few businesses have the insanely strict level of internal control required to make the subprojects fit together without breaking.

    If the PRC takes Taiwan, the Communist Party HOPES they could figure out the chip-making trade secrets required to run Taiwanese chip fabs properly. Chances are good that they would fail, even though the PRC can run PRC-style chip fabs. Chip-making is harder than you think. This is why the head of TSMC said a few years back that there would be no need to detonate bombs inside the fabs as the PRC military closed in — chip-making is so damn hard it would be impossible to keep the fab functioning if any significant fraction of skilled people were not cooperating enthusiastically.

    So, yeah, in theory, the PRC could take Taiwan with an extremely painful naval blockade. In theory, the Taiwanese would just accept that. In that theoretical scenario, Taiwan’s chip production goes to approximately zero. How long would the world economy survive with no Taiwanese-made chips? In theory, frugal, highly skilled, highly disciplined Americans could just take ASML’s machine tools and open up fabs in America. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.

  6. Freddo says:

    Despite two years of fear mongering, nobody is willing to die for Ukraine. People are even less willing to die for Taiwan.

  7. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    ”People are even less willing to die for Taiwan.”

    The Taiwanese are not asking anybody outside Taiwan to die defending the ROC from the PRC. There are a lot of Taiwanese who would die to defend the ROC, and there are a few Taiwanese who are willing to risk death to betray the ROC.

    Regardless of how this shakes out, or WHEN this shakes out, a functioning ROC is necessary to the current global economy. The PRC can destroy the ROC by pressing a single nuclear button, but the PRC cannot fix the world economy if any nuclear button gets pressed.

  8. VXXC says:

    Gaikokumaniakku, the Taiwanese aren’t asking anyone to die defending Taiwan. Good. Because the Americans shouldn’t, and aren’t likely to. As far as this “chip-making is so damn hard it would be impossible to keep the fab functioning if any significant fraction of skilled people were not cooperating enthusiastically.”


    That’s really not a problem. The knowledge and the skills are what’s needed. Cooperation isn’t a problem.

    I agree Taiwan’s human capital is priceless. I propose and I think ROC thought of this too that Taiwanese be able to emigrate to the USA. I see 600K are employed by the Chip manufacturing industry, the average household size is 2.6. Let’s say 1.8 million skilled people and the next generation of skilled people can come to the USA.

    Frankly I’m impressed enough by Taiwan’s success by with this that I’d visa the entire 24 million. It’s been a while since we had millions of actual skilled workers, really, despite what you may have heard. This will prevent hopefully the PRC taking hostages back home to ensure ‘cooperation’.

    Cooperation isn’t a problem, skills are. I think Chinghis Khan said that, or perhaps Beria. Both valued skilled workers, and excelled at building cooperative and motivated teams.

  9. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    “Cooperation isn’t a problem, skills are. I think Chinghis Khan said that, or perhaps Beria.”

    Skills are one problem, key capital is another problem, the laws of physics are a third problem. If I recall correctly, Lysenko had a lot of “cooperation” for his project of growing grain in Siberia. The laws of physics did not give a damn about his “cooperative and motivated” slaves. If you ever try to produce a profitable batch of semiconductors, you might discover that the laws of physics are more complicated than you think. But even if the CCP knows the physics, they will have trouble getting the key machine tools from European toolmakers.

  10. VXXC says:

    I’m American. Welcome, Taiwanese, to your new home and new factories in America.

    I just don’t want our US sailors, airmen, marines, and soldiers dying for Taiwan, sir, especially if the Taiwanese are taking this passive resistance tack.

    Cuz, like, Army sucks and private sector pays…believe me I know. I’m American and a Veteran. Just in case you think I’m Chinese or something, lol.

    We should welcome your people and their skills, we’ll assimilate them into our capitalist collective and your distinctiveness will add to our collective Federation. Yes… on the level. We’ve always had success at this path, we’re not doing the war thingie so well these days.

    Not that war in Taiwan is likely to take island, people or factories intact. Just come on over to say…Arizona ! Or even Syracuse NY.

    I must offer a corrective to your statement about Lysenko above. I didn’t say Lysenko, who was claiming the impossible. IC nm chips are eminently possible. This would be closer to Beria getting the Atomic Bomb done, admittedly with our ah ‘indirect’ assistance via spies. It’s one thing to demand the impossible on a secondary or tertiary matter like food. It’s another to duplicate the already done.

    And by the way, America invented all this technology, some forget. Admittedly Taiwan has at present perfected it’s production and turned it’s entire education system into something we can only now admire. Bring the teachers too.

    Really, we have plenty of room for 24 million highly skilled people.

    The war ain’t worth it, when we can have the prize — the Taiwanese human capital – and China can have the island. We get the chips, China gets its pride.

    This is win-win!

  11. Jim says:

    The U.S. really is the Borg, isn’t it.

  12. VXXC says:

    We welcome your people and their skills, we’ll assimilate them into our capitalist collective and your distinctiveness will add to our collective Federation. Yes… on the level. We’ve always had success at this path.

    We need chips, we need space, we need to eat your brains. I don’t care if we survive and get to space, which are the same thing long run.

    And I’m completely on the level.

  13. Albion says:

    Welcome to America, Taiwanese chip makers extraordinaire. Now you are subject to US law and practices, we are imposing diversity hires on you.

    Please adjust your employee and management structures to reflect this important facet of life.

  14. VXXC says:

    Oh, Albion, I think we can overlook some things if it’s important enough, like survival. And we do.

  15. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    The history of America is the history of people overlooking things for practical expediency getting btfoed by the people who insist on consistent application of the principles of the officially unofficial state religion.

    The former have never stopped losing for the last 200 years, and we are now living in the world where the fondest dreams of Locke and Kant and Rousseau are now being faithfully observed almost everywhere.

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