Responding to China's J-20 Stealth Patrols? American F-15s with Live Missiles Fly in Range of Taiwan as Tensions Rise

The U.S. Air Force on April 16 dispatched F-15C long range fighters armed with live AIM-120C and AIM-9M air to air missiles from Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, Japan, for flights widely interpreted as a show of force to China. The flights followed a visit by American lawmakers to Taipei, which was seen widely as a step towards further strengthening relations and potentially in future forming diplomatic ties. Coinciding with the visit the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held military drills in the surrounding region, as Beijing has issued strong warnings against American arms sales to and growing security ties with Taiwan. Taipei and Beijing have been technically at war for over 70 years, with both recognising themselves and recognised by the United Nations and all UN member states as part of the same country. The two rival Chinese governments - the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China - have near identical territorial claims, although only the Beijing government controlling over 99 percent of Chinese territory is internationally recognised. While the U.S. currently recognises Taiwan only as part of China, the possibility that it could be the first UN member state to recognise it as a separate country has been cause for considerable concern in the region, as Beijing has strongly indicated that it would respond to such steps with military action. 

The F-15C fighter has been in service for close to 45 years, but remains the longest ranged and fastest Western air superiority fighter ever developed. Modernised F-15 variants have capabilities rivalling older Chinese aircraft such as the J-11B, although for tackling higher end Chinese aircraft the U.S. Air Force is expected to rely on the new F-15EX and lighter but stealthy F-35 platforms. The F-15C is currently being phased out of service in favour of the F-15EX, with the F-15 design being the oldest aircraft in the world still in production today. Preceding the F-15C's flight with live missiles, the Chinese PLA deployed fast growing numbers of similarly heavy and long ranged fighters, the Chengdu J-20, for maritime patrols. The J-20 is the only heavyweight fighter of its generation both in production and fielded at squadron level strength anywhere in the world. The fighter saw its first encounter with American stealth jets confirmed in March 2022, with U.S. officials show significant respect for the Chinese jet. 

Flights by fighters carrying live air to air missiles are relatively rare, and the release of footage of such flights has consistently been seen as an indicator of efforts to signal an adversary at times of high tensions. The AIM-120C air to air missile from the early 2000s still equips the bulk of American frontline units, although its design dates back to the 1980s. Its range of around 100-120km depending on the variant, and its lack of an AESA radar for guidance, limits fighters’ ability to go head to head with more modern aircraft. More capable American air units deploy the AIM-120D missile with a 160-180km range, while the J-20 and other advanced Chinese jets deploy the PL-15 with a 250-300km range and AESA radar guidance.

China and the United States are currently considered the leading developers of high-performance heavyweight fighter jets, with the only other country producing heavyweights being Russia. The U.S. Air Force has invested heavily in the F-X program to provide a sixth generation fighter capable of tackling the J-20, while China is quickly developing a sixth generation aircraft of its own while modernising the J-20 design. The U.S. analogue to the J-20 originally intended to replace the F-15, the F-22, saw production cancelled after less than four years in service while the small numbers available are set to begin being phased out of service several decades ahead of initial plans due to a number of performance shortcomings. As a result the F-15 will continue to be heavily relied on several decades longer than expected, despite its lack of stealth capabilities and other key features such as distributed aperture systems limiting its viability on battlefields increasingly dominated by post fourth generation designs like the J-20 and F-35.



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