Battle of Britain in Reverse
In the recent Rand study titled “A Question of Balance-Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute” on the possible success of an Chinese attack on Taiwan, the authors seem to count out any nearby airbases early on in such a conflict:
It seems likely that China will soon deploy hundreds of SRBMs with the warheads and accuracy needed to impede or even halt high-tempo combat operations from air bases within 500–750 nm of China—the bases that both the ROCAF and USAF would depend on to defend Taiwan. Without improbably effective BMD on the Blue side, China can probably soon expect to be able to cut operating surfaces and destroy soft targets, including aircraft parked in the open (which many will be, since neither the ROCAF nor USAF appears to have provided adequate protection to its fighter force). While runways can be repaired, smashed aircraft cannot be replaced within the time frame of a rapid, modern war.
We think this a remarkable conclusion, and perhaps a turning point in the history of aerial warfare, which brings us to our Battle of Britain analogy. Simply put, the survival of the RAF airbases during the 1940 German air raids is usually credited with ensuring the survival of Britain itself. When Hitler switched from bombing the fighter bases to the Blitz on British cities, especially London, he gave up any chance of winning a military victory against the Island (at least in the air) to one of sapping the public’s will to fight on. Most historians often concede this a turning point in World War 2, in that the British Empire could fight on until the USA would be drawn into more active participation.
What if the RAF had been defeated, and its protective wings no longer able to control the skies over Britain? Most certainly there would have been an amphibious invasion, the much discussed Operation Sea Lion where the German Army could turn its proven blitzkrieg tactics against the barely armed British Ground forces, those still remaining after the disastrous retreat from Dunkirk. Such an outcome should be left to the writing of alternate fiction, but it appears from the scenario laid out by the Rand study, this may actually come to pass in a future conflict in the Taiwan Straits.
This is not the first time the guided missile has made an aircraft obsolete, or at least lessened its influence in a primary role. By the end of the 1950s, the guided missile had proved its superiority over the manned strategic bomber as the main carrier of the atomic bomb. At the same time, the first primitive surface to air missiles shot down an American U-2 spy plane, forcing an ominous sense of doubt over the once invincible Strategic Air Command. This was at a time with the USAF deployed over 3000 such aircraft which were the wonders of any age. Though the nuclear bombing role persists to this day for the manned bomber, their most valuable role from Vietnam to the Gulf Wars have been in the conventional bombing mission against backward Third World rogue states, a function hardly matching the titanic expense of their development.
Today the new wonder of the jet age seems to be stealth, which in retrospect is more a sign of obsolescence than another turning point in the age of manned flight. While the advanced technology of radar-evading materials does make the aircraft invisible to normal modes of detection, the expense of deploying such a capability is prohibitive to most nations other than the US. The tiny numbers which even a superpower can purchase means that older, cheaper legacy fighters must soldier in most of the functions, because they can’t afford to be replaced.
The next war then will certainly be a missile war. Though aircraft will still be around in various functions, they will be limited to a supporting role, such as tactical transport, vertical lift for troops, or mopping up after the rocket barrage. Many of their traditional roles will be overtaken by unmanned aerial vehicles, which without having to risk a pilot or $100 million dollar aircraft of which only a handful can be bought, makes the most sense.