Osprey vs. Bison in the East China Sea
Image Credit: Credit: Beige Alert via Flickr

Osprey vs. Bison in the East China Sea

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Stability in the region between Taiwan and Japan, and the security of Taiwan, hinges on an arms race that will soon be accompanying the heightened paramilitary engagements between Japanese, Chinese and, occasionally, Taiwanese Coast Guard ships over who will control the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

For now this contest for control is confined to shoving matches largely between Chinese and Japanese Coast Guard ships, which take several days to deploy. However, China is now developing the means to project decisive force to these islands in hours, not days. Should China gain the upper hand in this arms race there is a greater chance it will use force to occupy the islands and then set its sights on the strategically more attractive nearby Sakashima island group.

For now, though, the upper hand is held by the United States, which has just completed the initial deployment of 24 U.S. Marine Corps Bell-Boeing MV-22B Osprey conventional, or twin tilt rotor aircraft, to Futenma Base in Okinawa. This unique aircraft, by virtue of its twisting rotors and engines at the ends of its wing, can take off like a helicopter, and then cruise at about 280 miles per hour, carrying up to 24 troops or about six tons of cargo to a range sufficient to reach the disputed islands. In a full-out surge, the 24 MV-22Bs at Futenma could potentially put about 500 troops or about 140 tons of weapons and material on the Senkakus or the Sakashimas in about one hour.

On September 17, 2013, Kyodo reported thatcurrent commander of U.S. Marine forces on Okinawa, Lt. General John Wissler, told Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaimu about the Osprey, “That aircraft has the ability to reach the Senkakus, should we need to support any sort of Japan-U.S. security treaty.”

China is also accumulating rapid lift assets. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has taken delivery of the first Ukrainian-built Zubr (Bison) large hovercraft. The first example, delivered in May, is now undergoing final modifications in Shanghai. At least three more are expected initially, but China may build many more of an indigenous version. Developed by the former Soviet Union to give its Naval Infantry the ability to rapidly invade NATO countries along the Baltic Sea, the Zubr can lift about 500 troops or up to 150 tons of armor, weapons and material up to speeds of 66 miles per hour. With just four Zubr hovercraft, the PLAN could potentially put 2,000 troops or up to 600 tons of weapons and material on the Senkakus in about four to five hours, or it could reach the island of Miyako-jima in about six to seven hours with a much reduced payload.

If it actually came to a race between the Osprey and the Bison, getting there first would make all the difference, as without the advantage of surprise, an adequately armed defender could significantly damage incoming hovercraft or helicopters. But the outcome would also depend on the result of intensive air and sea battles around these islands. For now, the superior performance of the U.S. Lockheed-Martin F-22A fifth-generation fighter and the Virginia class nuclear-powered attack submarine provide a margin of superiority that undergirds deterrence, but this could change quickly as the PLA Air Force increases the number of capable fourth-generation fighters supported by AWACS radar aircraft, followed by fifth-generation fighters that could even the odds, especially if China decides to strike first. Growing numbers of PLAN air defense destroyers like the new Type 052D could also help deny air dominance to Japanese and U.S. forces.

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