China War Update 3
by David Archibald
6 January 2021
Targeting Chicoms Far and Near
One of the first signs of Japan’s entry into WW2 was when a Japanese naval vessel sailed down to the Kimberley coast of Western Australia to collect Japanese fishing vessels and escort them back to Japan, before the normal fishing season was over. They didn’t make it through the Dutch East Indies before Pearl Harbor was attacked and so they were strafed by the Dutch air force.
The current Chinese fishing fleet is big. It is also militarised, with all of them carrying automatic weapons and handheld lasers for blinding people. (Fighting the Chicoms will be like Perseus fighting Medusa — if you can see them, they can see you and attempt to blind you.) They use the Beidu global positioning system, which has the ability to send short messages back to mainland China. So each Chinese fishing boat is also effectively a reconnaissance vessel. They are all also potentially strike vessels. Fishing vessels can sink a lot of vessels in harbour. For example a Japanese fishing vessel called the Kofuku Maru was renamed the MV Krait. The Krait transported Australian special forces to Singapore in September, 1943 where they sank seven Japanese ships using limpet mines.
So, on the outbreak of war, every Chicom fishing vessel that can be economically sunk should be sunk because otherwise they will be up to mischief.
Chinese military theory posits that a war should be started with a surprise attack. It could be that one of the first signs that the Chicoms are about to attack is when a whole lot of Chinese-flagged vessels suddenly turn around and head for China.
Upon the outbreak of hostilities, the US plan is to attack targets in mainland China that night. Each side will be attempting to do some ‘shock and awe’ in order to psychologically intimidate the other during the subsequent conflict. Former US Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert O. Work has suggested that the US and its allies should have a goal to sink 3,000 Chinese ships in the first 24 hours of the war. This would send a message to Beijing that their attempts at naval interdiction will be futile.
Australia should take up a lot of that burden and set out to sink 1,000 Chinese ships in the first 24 hours of the war. It is question of knowing where they are and being able to hit them.
One of the reactions to the terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center was a requirement that ships at sea keep on a satellite transponder under the Automatic Indentification System (AIS) that provides details on vessel name, direction, speed, ownership, cargo etc.
Figure 1: Vessels around Australia on 4th January, 2020
The green symbols are cargo ships, red is for tankers, purple is pleasure vessels and the orange ones are fishing boats. You can see a cluster of 18 fishing boats about 1,000 km west of Perth. There is another cluster about 1,000 km northwest of Port Hedland. Ships can hide from this system by turning their transponder off.
The next layer of detection is our Jindalee over-the-horizon radar system. This system is quite good. Apparently it detected the engine blocks of the wooden fishing vessels that had been shipping illegals to Australia before Operation Sovereign Borders. Even 20 years ago, before the recent vast improvement in electronics, the Jindalee system could track aircraft taxiing at Singapore’s Changi Airport. So detecting oceangoing steel Chicom fishing boats in the far reaches of the Indian and Pacific oceans should be achievable.
As long as Australia has a system that can merge the AIS data with the Jindalee data before the AIS system goes dark then we should know the identity of each vessel for targeting purposes. Beyond that we have maritime surveillance drones like the Triton and manned reconnaissance aircraft in the form of the P-8 Poseidon. But they will take hours to get airborne and transit to their patrol areas. And we need China to start feeling pain as soon as they start their war.
With respect to those 18 fishing boats 1,000 km west of Perth, at the moment we couldn’t touch them. There are no fighter aircraft stationed west of RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory. There would be more immediate targets in the Timor Sea to attend to and any aircraft would take a day to get to Perth. The fishing boats won’t cooperate by staying in position either. Another consideration is that we want to sink them economically with missiles sized for tanks rather than warships.
The solution to the problem is the Loyal Wingman drone being developed by Boeing and the RAAF. It should be taking its first flight in the next month or so. It is the size of a normal fighter aircraft but is expected to cost only a few million dollars. The Loyal Wingman is subsonic, powered by a turbofan engine developed for corporate jets. While the F-35 has a range of about 1,000 km, the Loyal Wingman has a range of 3,000 km. This means that a Loyal Wingman based in the Cocos Islands could service targets up to the coast of Sri Lanka.
Figure 2: Loyal Wingman
A missile the size of the Hellfire weighs about 50 kg, so the Loyal Wingman should be able to carry at least 40 of them for a total load of two tonnes. Suddenly the job of sinking 1,000 Chinese vessels on day one of the war is becoming quite achievable. It would only take 25 aircraft in a perfect world, perhaps 100 to allow for wastage. Another great thing about the Loyal Wingman is that you don’t have to train pilots or keep them trained. Pilots for fighter aircraft cost about $6 million each for their training. And to keep them proficient is an ongoing cost. Pilots need 20 hours in the air each month to stay proficient in their fighter type. For F-35 pilots at $60,000 per flying hour, that is $1.2 million per month. The Loyal Wingman might cost the equivalent of three months of F-35 pilot training. And it doesn’t require superannuation, or leave widows.
The Department of Defence’s 2020 Strategic Update stated that our plans include ‘capabilities to hold adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia’. Perhaps our most important task on the outbreak of China’s war will be to disrupt their communication systems. One such base that needs attending to is the Chicom satellite station in Argentina, located at 38° 11’ 29” S, 70° 8’ 55” W:
Figure 3: China’s satellite communication facility in Argentina
This is 10,000 km from Australia. Technological development allows us to hit this station economically. A company in the US called Aevum has developed a twin-engine drone aircraft, called Ravn X, to launch satellites. It looks like a scaled up version of the Loyal Wingman, including a highly canted empennage to reduce its radar cross-section:
Figure 4: Ravn X
The Ravn X carries a rocket launch vehicle conformably under the aircraft, minimising drag. At altitude the plane releases the rocket which proceeds into space or ballistically down on a target. Importantly the Ravn X has a three hour cycle time of take-off, launching its rocket, landing, refuelling and rearming. Assuming it is powered by two GE 414 engines, then its engine cost would be about US$8 million. Normally the engines represent about 20% of the cost of a fighter aircraft. On that basis the cost would be US$40 million for the whole aircraft. But being unmanned will take a lot of costs out and building a Ravn X might be a US$20 million exercise. Each of the launch rockets might be US$1 million per unit.
By comparison, China’s equivalent missile in terms of range is the DF-31A, with a launch weight of 42 tonnes and a cost per unit of perhaps US$20 million. The DF-31A also requires a host of attendant launch vehicles and staff. The launch footprint is 300 metres by 300 metres.
It will be particularly important to destroy the radars on China’s seven Spratly Island bases. When that happens cheaper ordnance can be used to continue the reduction of these bases. We shouldn’t assume that the US will do it all, especially under a Biden administration that is already compromised by the Chicoms. Using the Ravn X or something similar, Australia could and should take on that role. This will make life easier for the Japanese in the conflict if the US is hobbled by their choice of leader.
A decision on full rate production for the F-35 is now on indefinite hold. One test the F-35 is supposed to pass before it can go to full rate production is in the joint simulation environment. This now won’t begin until mid to late 2021. By then the USAF will have a lot more experience with its NGAD fighter, which went from project initiation to first flight in a year. By comparison the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin signed the F-35 project contract 20 years ago, on 8th January, 2000. A lot of the F-35’s technology was out of date by 2010. The announcement to delay the full rate production decision is just theatre while the Pentagon decides what they want to buy.
Australia’s best reaction to this news would be to panic buy all the Gripen C and D aircraft that the Swedish air force has parked up. Our air force is far too small for its task so any extra aircraft won’t be a wrong decision.
In June last year Chinese troops made an unprovoked attack on a group of Indian soldiers one third their strength, using clubs made from star pickets with bits of steel welded to them. The Indian soldiers seized a lot of the clubs and made a counter attack into the Chinese camp, frightening the Chicoms with their ferocity.
Some evidence suggests the Chinese government had planned the incident, potentially including the possibility for fatalities. For instance, several weeks prior to the clash Defense Minister Wei made his statement encouraging Beijing to “use fighting to promote stability.” Just over two weeks before the incident, in another potential indication of Chinese leaders signalling their intent to escalate tensions, an editorial in China’s state-owned tabloid Global Times warned that India would suffer a “devastating blow” to its trade and economic ties with China if it got “involved in the U.S.-China rivalry.” Satellite images depicted a large Chinese buildup in the Galwan Valley, including potentially 1,000 PLA soldiers, the week before the deadly skirmish.
China has now moved 35 lightweight Type 15 tanks to face off against Indian forces along their border in the Himalayas. India has moved up T-90 tanks to the border. China’s leadership cannot be seen to lose face by losing any military encounter. So China is likely to launch a surprise attack using localised overwhelming force. The fighting season in 2021 could be a long one.
David Archibald is the author of The Anticancer Garden in Australia