How to Make U.S. Airborne ISR More Survivable in A South China Sea Fight

United States Military Academy and American Military University Alumni. Victor covers flash military, intelligence, and geo-political updates.

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On July 22nd, 2019, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) released the National Defense in the New Era White Paper which, for the first time, outlined the strategic implications of competition with the United States. An entire section of this paper was dedicated to the South China Sea where the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Air Force (PLAAF), and Army (PLA) have been hardening several dozen natural and artificially made islands with long range standoff missiles and aircraft. The militarization of these outposts has been ongoing since at least 2010. These operations are aimed at ensuring Chinese dominance in the First Island Chain, which Chinese planners consider to stretch from the South China Sea to the Japanese Coast. In response, the United States has deployed dozens of U.S. Navy vessels and aircraft from across the services to the South China Sea. However, the PLAN, PLAAF, and PLA have deployed several Beyond-Visual-Range (BVR) weapons that create Missile Engagement Zones (MEZ) and Weapons Engagement Zones (WEZ) hundreds of nautical miles in circumference, putting U.S. airborne ISR assets at significantly more risk. Within the U.S. military, planners are split on how to approach this problem set, with each service jockeying for increased funding to pursue its own solution. This challenge prompts the question: “How can the U.S. create a more survivable airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) profile in the South China Sea?

Available academic writing pertaining to the question centers on Chinese anti-air capabilities from the sea, air, and land. In order to identify how the services can coordinate their efforts to ensure ISR survival in the South China Sea, we must examine the “red cell”, allowing for follow on research to evaluate the “blue cell”. However, we must realistically admit that information on exquisite Chinese capabilities is hindered by classification, so studies published by the U.S. government must be compared to independent surveys of the region. The Congressional Research Service (CRS), Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and United States Naval Institute (USNI) represent the most significant conglomeration of research pertaining to the South China Sea problem set, which indicate the shifting of air and sea dominance from the U.S. and its allies to China.

The DIA China Military Power Report presents an in-depth analysis of the current militarized outposts in the South China Sea and the capabilities of the PLAN, PLA, and PLAAF. According to the DIA, the Paracel and Sprately Islands represent the greatest concentration of Chinese militarization. The CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) confirms this with their reporting of 20 islands fortified in the Spratleys and 9 in the Paracels with 4 of those having 10,000ft runways capable of launching PLAAF interceptors and bombers. The Rand Corporation also reported similarly when they outlined Chinese activity in the South China Sea since 2009, with the most important developments being the construction of those airfields which have supported sorties of the J-20, China’s most advanced 5th generation fighter, and the H-6 Bomber which are both capable of carrying the PL-15 and the PL-21, China’s most advanced air-to-air missiles.

Since 2017, the approximately 100 J-20 fighters in the PLAAF have operated from Cangzhou Flight Test and Training Base under the 172nd Air Brigade. The J-20 has since then been slowly integrated with the rest of the PLAAF, making its first combat patrol in the South China Sea in April of 2022. The missiles each have a WEZ of at least 160 NM, which will be carried by aircraft that already have operational rangers in excess of 1000 NM.

This extension of the PLAAF’s WEZ presents the greatest threat to American airborne ISR assets in that it presents the longest ranging and most survivable anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capability in the Chinese arsenal. USNI identified that the deployment of these 5th generation aircraft is the turning point in a historical inability of China to enforce an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. In order to enforce an ADIZ, China must be able to scramble interceptors to escort unidentified aircraft from the area, much like how Taiwan scrambles fighters daily to intercept Chinese land based fighters over the Taiwan Strait. In fact, it was PLAAF land based fighters that caused the Hainan Island Incident in 2001 which resulted in the capture of an American airborne ISR asset, of which the counter-intelligence implications are still unknown.

These studies all represent the correct assertion that PLAAF capabilities in the South China Sea are quickly approaching levels that can challenge, if not defeat U.S. air dominance in the region, without surged forces. This shift in power dynamics presents the greatest risk to the lumbering ISR aircraft with huge radar cross sections (RCS) that have limited capability to defend themselves during 0 day and sustained combat operations.

Four of these outposts also host deep water ports, able to service large PLAN surface combatants. According the DIA, the Southern Theater Navy, responsible for the South China Sea, is composed of 11 Destroyers and 19 Frigates, capable of carrying the HQ-9 SAM. According to Jane’s Fighting Ships, the HQ-9 represents the most advanced PLAN SAM with a range of about 65 nautical miles (NM), which is usually employed to protect swarms of Chinese Maritime Militia vessels which inundate adversary vessels with less sophisticated firepower.

Specifically, the Type 055 Destroyer is quickly becoming the main effort in the PLAN’s strategy to dominate the South China Sea, as 3 were commissioned in 2021 with another 2 already commissioned in 2022. These vessels represent the PLAN’s answer to the U.S. Aegis capable destroyers in that their battle management software and offensive missile capability make them increasingly independent and lethal. It is also worth noting that the PLAN launched its third aircraft carrier in June, which can carry a complement of more than 35 fighters, including the FC-31, China’s only 5th generation carrier borne fighter. While the Fujian will not be operational until 2024, the potential for three carrier air groups to patrol the South China Sea creates three additional fortified and mobile missile and aircraft bases than can challenge U.S. airborne ISR assets. The conclusions reached by these studies, that the PLAN is now able to challenge the U.S. 7th Fleet in the South China Sea should be heeded.

Once dredging operations commenced and larger islands like Fiery Cross Reef and Woody Island were occupied, the first order of business was installing radars and missile batteries under the PLA in order to create MEZs to deny any real confrontation to the Chinese claims. The United States Department of Defense and Johns Hopkins University have both conducted exhaustive studies documenting the deployments of PLA units to outposts in the South China Sea. The HQ-9 is the most potent SAM asset distributed throughout four of the 9 major fortified islands. It has a range of 120 nautical miles and presents a significant threat to U.S. HVAA. With the Russian and Iranian problem sets, U.S. aircraft can utilize terrain and commercial air traffic to mask approaches and intent. However, due to the isolation of these targets, large RCS aircraft are extremely conspicuous in this area of operations. PLA batteries have also been able to greatly expand the ranges of their target engagement radars by building towers which expand the horizon limitation. Also, with coordination between Chinese airborne early warning assets, the engagement range of these missiles can be expanded over the horizon by means of third party targeting. It is important to note that when studies analyze the ranges of these missile systems, what they often cite is the most limiting range, the horizon radar range, but the missile itself can fly much further if guided to a target. As previously stated, the U.S. 7th Fleet maintains a maximum presence of anywhere from 50-70 ships, all of which would not be able to surge directly to the South China Sea due to other commitments. According to the Army University Press, the PLA and People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) currently has a large enough inventory to overwhelm the ships defense systems of every major surface combatant of the U.S. 7th fleet. However, it is worth noting that the nature of this study and research question do not take into account allied ISR assets such as Japan, the Philippines, Korea, and Australia, which would most likely support operations against a kinetic China and currently support operations in the South China Sea today.

The research question: “How can the U.S. create a more survivable airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) profile in the South China Sea?” was examined through a Game Theoretic Model, specifically using the Colonel Blotto Game, which weighs “red cell” forces against “blue cell” forces across fronts in which the cell with the highest concentration of military power wins. In this model, the independent variables were identified as the raw military power deployable to the South China Sea from U.S. INDOPACOM and PRC Southern Theater Command units, taking into account time and space limitations from current basing agreements. This fed the dependent variable which was identified as the Blotto Game fronts which pitted deployable units against one another. By examining current U.S. deployment posture against the PRC capabilities, outlined above, this publication suggests a number of recommendations to increase blue cell capability to ensure the airborne ISR posture in the South China Sea becomes more survivable in 0 day operations against the PRC. It is important to note that due to classification restrictions of U.S. tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), the most reliable method to predict U.S. military power is the government stated home based units forward deployed to the Pacific. Also, to control the scope of this research, U.S. force projections will be limited to U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Marine airborne ISR units. In order to mitigate these restricting factors to the research, a more comprehensive study using tools available to the Intelligence Community at higher classification levels is desired.

Currently, INDOPACOM relies on the U.S. 7th Fleet, Pacific Air Forces, and the 1st Marine Air Wing, to rapidly deploy airborne ISR assets to the South China Sea. The U.S. 7th Fleet forward deployed element is the core of the U.S. Navy’s ability to project power into the South China Sea and would most likely represent the first contact units against 0 day operations by the PRC. The U.S. 7th fleet operates these ships from Yokosuka, Japan, Sasebo Japan, and Apra Harbor Guam.

The USS Ronald Reagan, currently deployed to the South China Sea, represents the keystone of the forward deployed units. It offers a carrier air wing comprised of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, reconnaissance helicopters, unmanned drones, and the E-2 Hawkeye, which are all capable of conducting airborne ISR operations from the carrier. Other notable ships that offer airborne ISR deployment are the USS America (LHA-6), several amphibious transport docks (LPDs), and the USS Blue Ridge. However, these ships are homeported in mainland Japan, which as its closest point lies nearly 1,800 nautical miles from the WEZ of PLA missile batteries in the Spratley Islands. The logistical situation is equally as complex when looking at 7th Fleet ships and assets deployed from Guam which lies 1,900 nautical miles from the Spratleys, with the territory of the Philippines lying in between.

Even if the approximate 26 vessels of the forward deployed element of the 7th fleet could be mustered simultaneously to sail to the Paracel or Spratley Islands, those ships and attached aircraft would be confronted by the approximate 30 HQ-9 capable surface vessels of the Southern Theater Navy. For scope concerns, this paper does not address the East Sea Fleet which would also contest such a transit during wartime. As current troop concentrations and basing arrangements stand, the U.S. 7th Fleet faces a formidable concentration of military power posed by the Southern Theater Command, posing intolerable risk to airborne ISR assets deployed from surface vessels.

The United States Air Force (USAF) Pacific Air Forces represents the mainstay of airborne ISR capabilities in the South China Sea. By capitalizing on limited basing agreements and tanker operations, ISR assets such as the E-3B SENTRY, E-8C J-STARS, and the RC-135V/W RIVET JOINT, are able to provide indications and warnings to PLAN assets operating in the South China Sea. Even if assets such as the RIVET JOINT are not organically part of the Pacific Air Forces, they utilize Andersen Air Force Base in Guam as well as USAF bases in Yokota, Japan and Osan, South Korea, to serve their logistics needs.

U.S. Pacific Air Forces major installations.

Also, while not USAF assets, the U.S. Navy P-8 POSIEDON also utilizes these bases in order to fly these ISR missions. However, as outlined above, the logistical footprint needed to make these flights is immense, often relying on the KC-135R STRATOTANKER to provide at least two refueling missions per flight. All of these aircraft are built on commercial airframes and are not only physically large, but also have huge radar cross sections, making them highly conspicuous to Chinese radar. These aircraft are at immense risk when flying in contested airspace, and as current basing operations stand, all U.S. tactical aircraft, which would serve as escorts, are out ranged by these ISR platforms, which they themselves rely on tankers. This means that when a carrier air wing is not present, airborne ISR flights must often transit and collect without an escort.

With this information in mind, U.S. airborne ISR, both naval and ground based, faces an overwhelming potency of adversary anti-air capability. This can be examined via the Colonel Blotto Game which divides this problem set into two “fronts”, one which pits U.S. airborne ISR assets against PRC anti-air platforms which are naval based, and one which pits U.S. airborne ISR assets against PRC anti-air platforms which are ground based. This construct represents what a penetrating strike against PRC formations in the South China Sea would resemble. First the PLAN screens would be collected on and neutralized before the fortified outposts could be assaulted. Due to current basing arrangements which provide an insurmountable logistics problem, the U.S. will not be able to muster a potent enough ISR posture to survive 0 day operations which will target U.S. logistical hubs in Japan and Guam, while simultaneously engaging HVAA targets such as tankers and the actual ISR platforms.

These issues are not lost on U.S. military planners and it is worth noting the disconnected approach that the services are taking to address this problem in order to suggest solutions. The United States Navy is pursuing a Distributed Fleet construct which they hope will make their surface, sub-surface and aviation spearheads harder to kill in a China fight. The Distributed Fleet architecture calls for a smaller number of large manned surface combatants and a fleet of unmanned large and small surface vessels which would function as missile carriers and targets for adversary missiles.

This architecture also applies to aircraft with regards to the integration of the MQ-28 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which is designed to accompany manned flights of 5th generation fighters to carry more munitions and defend the manned aircraft. The United States Air Force is divesting of several legacy aircraft in order to allow for the acquisition of more 5th generation fighters, 6th generation research, and development of hypersonic missiles, research which the service is leading amongst the Department of Defense (DoD). Finally, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) is investing in the Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations (EABO) doctrine which demands a smaller and nimbler force armed with Group 5 UAS such as the MQ-9. In fact, the USMC has announced plans this year to establish an MQ-9 base in Hawaii with advanced bases in Guam to service their flights throughout INDOPACOM.

Based on the findings of the blue cell and red cell analysis via the Colonel Blotto Game in a Game Theoretic Model, this publication finds that the disjointed manner in which the services are tackling the PRC’s access/area denial in the South China Sea is insufficient to make the airborne ISR posture survivable in a conflict with China. In order to solve the long range aviation logistics problem in the South China Sea, the U.S. has three primary options to consider.

An aerial view of the station and, to the left, Naval Air Station, Cubi Point.

The re-opening of Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base in the Philippines, trade manned ISR flights for a larger inventory of unmanned sensors, or increase the inventory of U.S. space based ISR satellites, assigned exclusively to the Chinese problem set. The USN base at Subic Bay and the USAF base at Clark Airfield were closed in 1992 after the U.S. and Filipino governments were unable to come to an agreement on the leasing cost for the bases. At the time, the negotiation gap was five hundred millions dollars. Those installations were a mere 400 nautical miles from both the Paracel and Spratley Islands, meaning that if the U.S. were allowed to position its 7th Fleet and Pacific Air Forces there, the aforementioned Chinese outposts would be matched in military power potency, of which the U.S.’ is extremely diluted due to the far off basing options in Guam and Japan. However, the cost of establishing bases there after 30 years would most likely be in the billions of dollars.

The second option, to transition manned ISR flights for unmanned would give the benefit of longer dwell times and less risk to American aviators in the contested airspace, but again would present a massive price tag to the American people, most likely in the tens of billions of dollars to achieve parity with manned collection assets. Currently, even the U.S.’ most advanced unmanned sensors do not provide the capability that large manned sensors do. The infrastructure for basing unmanned ISR platforms in Guam is already established, so increasing the capacity at Andersen Airbase would be cheaper than re-establishing bases in the Philippines, but would still present a logistical hurdle for unmanned flights.

The third solution, launching at least another dozen MASINT, SIGINT, and GEOINT satellites to alleviate the absence of airborne ISR assets in the First Island Chain, would give the benefit of less risk to our manned aviators, but would also take years and billions of dollars for such exquisite sensors. While the costs of such satellites are classified under the National Intelligence Program (NIP), the U.S.’ capacity to launch these sensors is limited as well. According to live satellite trackers, only 7 of these sensors were probably launched in 2021. Overall, this paper finds that re-establishing at least limited naval and air bases in the Philippines balances the significant cost and time expenses to creating a more survivable and potent airborne ISR presence in the South China Sea.


This publication addressed the research question: “How can the U.S. create a more survivable airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) profile in the South China Sea?” By researching and analyzing the red cell (PRC) and blue cell (U.S.) anti-air and ISR surveillance capabilities, respectively, this paper was able to conclude that as current basing operations stand, U.S. airborne ISR is unable to provide persistent and survivable coverage to U.S. Navy and Marine Corps units that would seek to dislodge PLAN, PLAAF, and PLA units currently occupying the South China Sea. The Literature Review sought to establish the red cell which composed the PRC’s military deployments to the region that are presenting significant risk to these ISR platforms. Specifically, the deployment of SAM sites in the fortified islands, SAM capable vessels of the South Sea Fleet, and 5th generation fighters with advanced BVR AAMs to airfields throughout the fortified islands. This publication sought to establish the blue cell disposition of U.S. deployments to within striking distance of the South China Sea. Those findings focused on the fact that without logistical support, USN, USAF, and USMC ISR assets would not even be able to range to the South China Sea. Then, using a Game Theoretic Model, this publication found that as current basing operations stand, the U.S. is unable to ensure their limited airborne ISR platforms would be effective in the potent Chinese MEZ and WEZs in the South China Sea. So, this paper suggested three courses of action which the U.S. government could take to mitigate the significant logistical hurdle which gives the PRC unmatched air combat potency in the region. Each course of action presents an interesting and formidable research opportunity into the geopolitical, monetary, and temporal challenges in creating a more potent U.S. military presence in the South China Sea which would ensure the survival of airborne ISR assets in the event of a war with China.