In the early years of air power, aircraft had to overfly their targets in order to deliver a meaningful effect, thereby exposing themselves to antiaircraft defences. Even strafing (striking a ground target with gun or cannon fire) usually required the attacking aircraft to fly within the envelope of defensive weapons and systems. More recently, unguided rockets allowed an attacking aircraft to stand off a little further, but with a loss of accuracy and precision such that Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots in the 1980s viewed the unguided rockets such as the Societe Nouvelle des Etablissements Edgar Brandt (SNEB) 2.7 inch (68mm) as an ‘area’ weapon and not as a precise direct fire weapon like a gun.
Guided missiles offer greater standoff range and precision. But because missiles represent a difficult target, it is always preferable to engage the missile launch platform before it has reached its firing point. This has led to the development of longer-range defensive systems which have, in turn, required the production of longer-ranged, faster, lower-flying, and lower signature missiles.
The employment of long-range air-launched missiles in much of the Indo-Pacific region is further complicated by China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, which aim to push enemy missile launch platforms further out from Chinese targets, preventing them from operating close enough to China’s coast to be able to pose a threat.
The anti-access element of China’s A2/AD strategy uses attack aircraft, warships, and submarines, as well as precision-guided ballistic missiles and advanced land-attack cruise missiles to create a heavily contested air and surface environment over a very wide area.
Area denial (the denial of an enemy’s freedom of action in areas under friendly control) relies on the use of defensive systems including anti-aircraft fire (AAA), surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), fighter aircraft, and other air defence systems. In recent years anti-satellite weapons have been added to the mix, giving an ability to disrupt the satellite communications and GPS capabilities on which attacking aircraft, ships and other forces rely.
China’s A2/AD bubble
China’s occupation and militarisation of islands and reefs in the South China Sea – especially in the Spratly Islands (which China calls the Nansha islands) and the Paracel (Xisha) islands has extended China’s A2/AD bubble so that it stretches beyond the so-called first island chain that stretches from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Malay Peninsula, encompassing the Kuril Islands, Japanese Archipelago, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan (Formosa), the northern Philippines, and Borneo, and which already includes most of the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
By building advanced airbases that could accommodate tactical aircraft, bombers and missiles on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef (all of which lie within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone), China has effectively reneged on Xi Jinping’s September 2015 assurance that it did not intend to pursue militarisation of the Spratly islands, and has affectively brought the second island chain within China’s A2/AD bubble (including the Mariana Islands, with the United States territory of Guam).
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