The autocratic People’s Republic of China (PRC) – notably its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – can’t seem to get enough of bullying the freedom-loving Republic of China (ROC), more commonly known as Taiwan.
In the immediate aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine back in February 2022, many observers feared that Xi Jinping would feel emboldened to launch an equally brutish invasion of Taiwan sooner rather than later. Then, of course, Ukraine’s resistance turned out to be much stiffer and stronger than expected, resistance that continues heroically to this day, much to Putin’s chagrin. Those same observers thought this would give Xi second thoughts, as launching an invasion force across a 97-mile-wide body of the water like the Taiwan Strait is a far more daunting prospect than doing so across a conveniently shared land border like Russia and Ukraine.
However, the latest developments show that Xi and the PLA are back to their blustering and saber-rattling ways, logistics and geography notwithstanding.
Is China Gearing Up to Invade Taiwan?
These latest disturbing developments come to us courtesy of U.S. Express News reporter Aurora Bosotti in a story republished by MSN on September 14, 2023, titled “China sends 68 warplanes and 10 warships to surround Taiwan in major threat to invade.” To wit:
“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) flew 68 warplanes over Taiwan as 10 of its Navy vessels circled the island in one of its biggest displays of force so far this year … China’s grandstanding comes only weeks after the United States sent equipment to the self-ruled island for the first time in history … The deployment of the 68 warplanes came less than 24 hours after the Taiwanese Government reported another 35 Chinese aircraft had been spotted in its airspace … On Thursday, Taipei’s Defense Ministry reported several J-10 fighters had flown into the country’s air defense identification zone.”
The centerpiece of those ten PLAN vessels is the aircraft carrier Shandong. Bosotti’s report doesn’t specify any other PLA Air Force Navy (PLAN) or Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft types such as the fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 Wēilóng (“Mighty Dragon”) stealth fighter.
However, a parallel article on the topic of this latest Chinese aggression, “Chinese warships are menacing Taiwan. Our carriers are at sea, but crippled by incompetence,” penned by Lewis Page of Britain’s The Telegraph, notes that the Shandong also carries J-15s, With that in mind, some technical evaluations are in order.
PLA Weapons System Specifications
As noted in “China’s Aircraft Carrier Fleet: What Do We Know About It?” the Shandong (山东舰; NATO reporting name “Kuznetsov Mod.” [“modified’]) is the PRC’s first homegrown aircraft carrier – though not the first to actually go operational – laid down in March 2013, launched on April 26, 2017, and commissioned on December 17, 2019. This warship has a fully-laden displacement of 70,000 tons, a hull length of 1,000 feet 8 inches, and a carrying capacity of 36 fighter aircraft.
According to 19FortyFive’s Maya Carlin, the Shenyang J-15 Fēishā (飞鲨; “Flying Shark;” NATO reporting name “Flanker-X2”) is a “copycat” of the 4th Generation Russian Sukhoi Su-33 (NATO reporting name “Flanker-D”). Recent Russo-Sino amity notwithstanding, Carlin adds that the Russians have been quite blunt in their derision of the “Flying Shark,” “The J-15 is too heavy to operate efficiently from carriers, has problems with its flight control systems, which has led to several crashes, and more … Beijing doesn’t even have enough J-15s to outfit both of its carriers.”
Whatever the J-15’s shortcomings may be, it boasts a max airspeed of Mach 2.4 (1,826.897 mph) and wields an arsenal consisting of a single 30mm GSh-30-1 and twelve external hardpoints with a carrying capacity of 14,330 lbs.’ worth of ordnance, such as the PL-15 long-range air-to-air missile and the YJ-83K anti-ship missile.
Citing Carlin again, she notes that the Chengdu J-10 Měnglóng (猛龙; “Vigorous Dragon;” NATO reporting name “Firebird”) is also a copycat, only this time a 4th Generation *American* jet fighter, the good ol’ F-16 Fighting Falcon AKA Viper. In fairness, however, the “Vigorous Dragon” also borrows part from the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Lavi (“Young Lion”). The “Firebird” has a top speed of Mach 1.8 (1,370,173 mph) and packs a single 23mm GSh-23 auto-cannon along with hardpoints with a combined load-bearing capacity of 12,345 pounds (gee, how sequential) of ordnance such as the PL-15, the KD-88 standoff land attack missile.
Concurrent Developments and Countermeasures
So, what does the West have to counter these Shandong? Well, as indicated by the title of Mr. Page’s article, it’s not looking too good. Yes, a Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group headed up by the HMS Queen Elizabeth has embarked on a deployment to the area. The problem, however, is that the ship doesn’t have “a credible force of F-35 jumpjets. Once again, the Lizzie has gone to sea with just eight of them … There’s more. This time instead of three Crowsnest radar choppers, Queen Elizabeth will have only two, with a correspondingly low likelihood of being able to maintain a 24-hour airborne watch.”
As if that weren’t bad enough, Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) currently doesn’t have any 5th Generation fighters in its arsenal to counter China’s. If there’s any silver lining behind the cloud, it’s that the J-10 and J-15 aren’t 5th Generation either, so at least on paper, Taiwan’s F-16s should be a sufficient match for them, especially with the recent infrared search and track systems, (IRST) upgrades.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).