What US Air Force Re-Optimization Means for Taiwan

What US Air Force Re-Optimization Means for Taiwan

Taiwan Airforce Masthead
What US Air Force Re-Optimization Means for Taiwan

In February 2024, the leadership of the US Air Force (USAF) introduced a set of sweeping reforms, under the mantra of “Re-Optimization for Great Power Competition.” These will be some of the biggest changes for the service since its inception, designed so that the USAF can better compete with, deter, and if need be, defeat aggression from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

There are some 24 areas of reform, covering the service’s organization, manning, readiness, and weapons development. However, in general terms, these reforms can be seen as having two primary goals: rapid force generation and readiness for a high-end fight. The re-optimization goes beyond operations. As the USAF Chief of Staff has stated, it can be thought of as an attempt to build the USAF from scratch, given the current strategic environment.

In this article, I will look at some of the major areas of reform, along with the implications and ideas they contain for Taiwan’s defense.

Rapid Force Generation

The USAF has a long tradition of being an expeditionary air force. Once the USAF has completed preparations for intervention, opponents who have sought to directly challenge the US have historically been crushed by an overwhelming combination of technology and training. This reached an apogee during the long global war on terror, with adversaries rarely having the ability to target US airpower, let alone the vast support network behind it. Thus, for missions today, the USAF “crowdsources” various capabilities piecemeal—for instance, fighters, bombers, tankers, even individual personnel—and then combines them in the theater. This is analogous to “just in time” logistics: efficiency is high and costs are lowered, but this approach is not suited for high-intensity combat. Given the environment of the war on terror, where the US enjoyed air dominance, safe bases, easy communications, and time for units to work together to achieve combat readiness, this worked well enough.

This environment would not exist in a conflict over Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has long studied the Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the Iraq War, and now the Russia-Ukraine War for lessons in blunting the US ability to intervene. The US Secretary of the Air Force has noted that the PRC has systematically targeted every aspect of American power projection in a Taiwan crisis, seeking to slow or degrade generation, deployment, and finally employment of military power. This is all wrapped into the PLA operational concept of system destruction warfare (體系破擊戰), which seeks to paralyze the enabling capabilities of an adversary force. Accordingly, the PLA constantly assesses USAF operational readiness for weaknesses to exploit. US force generation just prior to the start of a conflict would likely be struck by massive cyber-attacks from the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF, 解放軍戰略支援部隊) to deny communications, spread disinformation, and hack logistics systems. All of this would badly slow down and degrade the ability to generate forces via the crowdsourcing method, as delays in any part of the generation and deployment chain would compound upon one another.

Thus, the USAF has now proposed a new “unit of action” configuration, the combat wing. The combat wings will train extensively with multiple capabilities and be prepared to rapidly deploy, even when communications are badly disrupted. They will have their own native command-and-control, mission, and support elements. By pre-building cohesive units trained to the mission, the effects of a PLA paralysis attack on force generation can be mitigated. While this organization will likely have more expensive upkeep, it provides resiliency and the ability to absorb attrition that the current model does not have.   

Readiness for a High-End Fight

Rapid force generation is important, but not sufficient. The now-generated force now needs to be ready to fight against a peer adversary. Revelations that PLA Air Force (PLAAF, 解放軍空軍) pilots were being trained by Western ex-military pilots at the Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA) is a good indicator that the PLAAF does not have high confidence in either its own training or the quality of its pilots. However, the PLAAF would be fighting close to home, with a dense network of radars, air defense, and bases, while the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF, 解放軍火箭軍) is expected to employ mass salvos against US forward airfields and command-and-control nodes.

The USAF has responded to this by embracing the agile combat employment (ACE) scheme of operational maneuver, by rapidly moving forces from dispersed base to dispersed base. It is in essence a military form of the shell game, confusing adversary targeting.

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Image: Visualizing the USAF concept of Agile Combat Employment. The USAF is leaning into maneuver as a form of survivability. To successfully execute complex maneuvers under an environment of constant kinetic and non-kinetic attack, the USAF emphasizes specific training, pre-positioning of assets, and mission command. Taiwan does not have the need to coordinate a massive expeditionary force across thousands of miles; however, Taiwan still does need to ensure its units can execute Taiwan’s defense plans under the same communication-denied environment. (Source: Air University Public Affairs)

As ACE itself introduces new complexities in terms of training, logistics, and base defense, the USAF re-optimization seeks to build a force from the ground up that is trained to these challenges. Training will more heavily focus on mission command and flexibility. Exercises will become larger and more complex, with a focus on the Pacific. This is not limited to the USAF alone. In addition to joint integration, more and more allies are now included as key operational enablers and a clear sign of strategic integrated deterrence. All of this will lead to a major Pacific exercise in 2025 involving multiple combatant commands—in short, exercising global US military power for a singular purpose, at a scale unseen since the Cold War.

Lessons for Taiwan

While Taiwan should not blindly replicate the expeditionary air force model, there are also useful lessons in considering and adapting some of the assumptions behind the USAF reform.

First, the USAF is assuming that the adversary has achieved a relative level of technical parity. Unlike the Cold War, in which the US sought to use technological superiority to both offset Soviet numerical superiority and to goad the USSR into ruinous military spending, the assumption here is that there is no set of technological solutions that will impose sustained dominance on the adversary. Short-term tech initiatives like “Replicator” (massed attritable, autonomous systems) are meant to match PRC capabilities, versus achieving overmatch. Even the future fielding of advanced capabilities such as the Next Generation Air Dominance platform, the B-21 stealth bomber, and collaborative combat aircraft will not allow for “operations as usual.” Taiwan should also not assume that deterrence can be created through a “war-winning” technical solution—acquisitions should not drive strategy. Training and organization is the primary offset, not technology.

Second, the USAF assumes defensive countermeasures will not fully mitigate the ability for the adversary to cut off command and control. While the US has invested in base hardening, air defense, and electronic warfare, the experience of the Russia-Ukraine War has demonstrated that fixed air defense sites can be overwhelmed by pure numbers, and defense against electronic warfare is transitory. The new unit of action configuration is an acknowledgment that even while defensive countermeasures raise the cost of aggression for an adversary, the USAF cannot guarantee the survival of centralized command and control, and thus needs to build a structure that is not dependent on it.

Screenshot 2024 03 19 at 1.16.30 PM

Image: ROCAF teams loading an AGM-84L Harpoon anti-ship missile at Chiashan Air Base (佳山基地) during the Han Kuang (漢光演習) exercise (July 26, 2023). Chiashan is well-known for its extensive fortified underground hanger system, and would also likely be an alternate command and control site in case the Joint Air Operations Center (空軍作戰指揮部) in Taipei’s Toad Mountain (蟾蜍山) was knocked out. However, given the likely scale of kinetic and electronic attack on these fortified bases, Taiwan’s military would be well-advised to treat the availability of centralized command and control as a fortuity instead of an operational necessity. (Source: ROCAF)

Taiwan has also practiced elements of base hardening, as well as a tactical version of ACE:  aircraft highway landings. Practicing larger-scale dispersal and follow-up sortie generation under simulated kinetic/electronic attack would demonstrate to the adversary that they would face more than pinprick attacks at the end of their firepower strikes. Previous Taiwan national-level exercises practiced survivability drills for command and control; future exercises should practice a worst-case scenario where centralized command and control is badly degraded. Taiwan does not have the issue of coordinating spread-out forces and fighting across thousands of miles, but it does need to ensure a more basic requirement that bases and units will not be paralyzed into inaction like Ukraine’s Crimean bases in 2014.   


The PRC has already begun an expanded campaign of gray zone coercion, with the greater use of balloons and China Coast Guard incursions around Kinmen. However, this is a mask for a period of relative PRC weakness, which allows for a period of strategic risk-taking. Just as the US military is accepting some short-term operational risk through a significant reform, Taiwan should take advantage of this period by economizing on gray zone response, freeing up time and resources for the military and all-of-society defense to undergo a greater level of training, informed by the US experience. This will deepen deterrence over the decade and beyond.   

The main point: The US Air Force’s re-optimization program emphasizes rapid force generation and readiness for the high-end fight to deter PRC aggression. Taiwan has different defense needs and priorities, but will be subject to many of the same assumptions that drive the USAF reform. Taiwan should analyze the process of USAF re-optimization and adapt accordingly to deter PRC aggression over the long-term.