Much of the recent strategic analysis on the South China Sea has largely focused on the naval sphere, with the acquisition of new submarines by Vietnam and Malaysia and the US Navy conducting freedom of navigation missions in the contested waters. In contrast, the aerial domain has either been forgotten or only mentioned in passing. The absence of analysis on air power means that several questions have been left unanswered. Specifically, can Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines challenge Chinese encroachment in the air?

The aircraft available to China vastly outnumber anything Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines have. In the southern Guangzhou Military Region alone there are around 158 modern combat aircraft and some 164 older ones in both the Air Force and Naval Aviation commands. Most of the new ones belong to the Sukhoi Su-27 family, totalling around 110 aircraft. Even accounting for logistics and the capacity of air bases just in the Guangzhou Military Region, the Chinese can deploy a force that outnumbers and outguns all their opponents combined.

In contrast, Vietnam flies 40 newer planes from the Su-27 family, including 29 Su-30Mk2s, which is one of the most advanced versions on the market. Vietnam also has 61 older planes, but these are of doubtful quality. Malaysia also has 18 of the newer model Su-30MKM in their inventory, in addition to 43 older planes of many different types. In comparison to Malaysia and Vietnam, the Philippines has even less air power available, with only 12 new FA-50 light attack planes recently delivered from South Korea. 

The Operational Environment

The air forces of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have a degree of geographical advantage – the islands that are in dispute are closer to their air bases than they are to Chinese ones. Older fighters in the Vietnamese and Malaysian air forces can easily reach their respective claims. The Philippines has the same advantage, but it is hampered by its limited number of airplanes. However, the Chinese are not at a complete disadvantage: the Sukhoi Su-27 family has a long range, and can conduct combat operations from bases on Hainan Island. That being said, the longer distance there is between bases and targets, the less time there is to actually conduct missions and the ability to loiter and conduct long-range air patrols patrols is limited. To actually conduct these types of operations at such a distance is not an option. Thus, the need for bases closer to the Spratlys becomes an operational and a strategic imperative for China.

In 1990 China constructed a 2700 meter runway on Woody Island, long enough to handle any Chinese combat aircraft currently in service. And China has not limited their construction to a runway on Woody, having built a large radar system and left room for missile launchers. China has already deployed modern combat aircraft and H-9 long-range anti-air missiles to the Island. From Woody Island, Chinese fighters can cover almost the entirety of the South China Sea. Further south in the Spratlys, the airfields and associated anti-air defences being built on Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef are nearing completion, in addition to other Chinese installations such as radars and missile launchers. From these island air bases, even older Chinese fighters can join a potential fray and strike against Malaysian and Filipino bases almost at will, both of which lack major anti-air capabilities.

The combined airfields and missiles create a network of overlapping zones that can actively deny opponents the ability to strike against Chinese held islands. While having been primarily focused on naval denial, the anti-air version of China's anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) is similar, helping to keep any potential threat away from their island bases. Despite some analysts arguing that these island bases and the associated Chinese air and naval forces are sitting ducks, this assumes that the US would be involved militarily in a potential conflict – yet Vietnam and Malaysia cannot count on US assistance. The Philippines has defence treaties with the US, but recent planning within the Philippine Air Force suggests a desire to improve their own capabilities.

Challenging China

The aerial strength of the countries around the South China Sea remains unbalanced in China's favour, so much in fact that these countries would likely not be able to hold off sustained attacks from China. At the most, they could slow China down. To have a fighting chance, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines all need to reinforce and strengthen their air forces and their anti-air capabilities. These countries are aware of this, and have all been preparing accordingly in different ways.

For instance, in November 2015, Malaysia held a significant aerial exercise involving their Su-30MKMs, their American F/A-18Ds and their British BAE Hawks. They practiced aerial combat, suppression of anti-air defences, and precision bombing – all operations that would likely be targeted against one enemy in particular. Indeed, the exercise was launched from Labuan Air Base – just south of the Spratly Islands. This is in addition to the ongoing wish to buy new advanced fighters to upgrade and strengthen the Malaysian Air Force.

Vietnam has also realised their weakness in the air, and has announced an intention to acquire a dozen more Sukhois, likely of the newer Su-35 design. Hanoi has also bought Russian S-300 anti-air missile systems, and aims to buy the upgraded S-400 version in addition to lighter shoulder-mounted Igla-1s. But Vietnam has not stopped there – they have also decided to copy Chinese A2/AD and bought additional Russian anti-ship missiles.

The Philippines has the furthest to go to prepare for any conflict against China, in the air or on the water. The Philippine Air Force's long-term planning aims to acquire not only new advanced fighters by 2021, but also airborne early warning systems — something the other countries have not publicly announced — and ground based anti-air missiles and radars.

New potential aircraft are the same for all of them: the Saab JAS-39 Gripen, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafael, the upgraded F-16V, and the Sukhoi Su-35. Which plane any of the countries will buy has not yet been decided, but with Vietnam's history of buying Russian weapons, a purchase of the Su-35 is the most probable for Hanoi. The Philippines seem to favour the JAS-39, while for Malaysia and their history of buying a mix of Russian and Western fighters means the choice is much more uncertain and can fall either way.

Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have all seen the threat, not only from the sea, to which RAND suggests to counter with a network of anti-ship missiles, but also in the air. If these countries are able to obtain, learn how to use and deploy the weapons effectively, they can counter and threaten China's encroachments through more than just words and delaying tactics – they can challenge Beijing in the air and support their naval force modernisation.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dmitry Terekhov.