As rumors continue to circulate on Chinese social media about the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s much-anticipated stealth bomber, the first glimpses of the next-generation aircraft reportedly turned up in a brand new sizzle reel produced by AVIC Chinese Aviation Industry Corporation. While no sources have confirmed the authenticity of these images, the video also appeared on the official Weibo page of the state-run China Central Television, making the footage something of a veiled reminder that the military’s stealth program continues to steam along swiftly behind the scenes.
China has rapidly accelerated its stealth program over the last decade, culminating in a handful of next-generation aircraft that could eventually challenge the U.S. fleet for aerial dominance. Here’s what we know about China’s two potential stealth aircraft based on the little bits of information that have trickled out in recent weeks.
China’s pressing need for a new bomber fleet is apparent to both the top brass of the PLAAF and outside observers. The H-6K aircraft that the PLAAF currently operates as its primary strategic bomber, based on the old Russian TU-16 ‘Badger,’ have been in service for over 40 years, roughly equivalent to the freakishly-durable B-52 but with a shorter range and lower payload capacity. The United States plans on flying the B-52 for another 30 years, and China is unlikely to build a new high-tech bomber in comparable numbers to offset its aging H-6K bomber fleet.
Currently, most capable stealth aircraft in the Chinese fleet appears to be the J-20 Black Eagle, a heavy interceptor, which shocked Western observers when it made its debut in 2010 as the first fifth-generation fighter produced in Asia (In fact, the state-influenced South China Morning Post claims the J-20 made it’s debut of the South China Sea just today). A second stealth fighter, the smaller J-31 Gyrfalcon, a multirole fighter akin to an F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, took flight in 2012.
The J-20 and J-31 show that China is certainly capable of producing the stealth-capable aircraft it needs — and reports suggest that China is likely developing not one, but two new nuclear-capable stealth bombers. At least one of them, the subsonic H-20 based on the B-2 Spirit design, may have its maiden flight in the next two years. But the second, the supersonic JH-XX, is likely a few more years from taking flight due to its overwhelming complexity.
The concurrent (and costly) development of both of these stealth fighters makes it even more clear that China is trying to catch up to the United States as quickly as possible.
The H-20 subsonic flying wing style stealth bomber
The H-20 concept has been floating around for years as the Chinese answer to the B-2 Spirit, which is why it will likely be the first stealth bomber to debut. As The War Zone points out, the new imagery featured in the AVIC sizzle reel appears to mimic the B-21 Raider’s reveal during Super Bowl LI in 2017.
The H-20 airframe, designed for both conventional and thermonuclear long-range subsonic strikes, may borrow from legendary and expensive American engineering efforts: Chinese hackers managed to steal thousands of documents related to the design and production of both the F-35 and the B-2 in 2007 from Lockheed Martin, according to documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that were released in 2015.
The JH-XX supersonic stealth bomber
The second stealth bomber concept, the JH-XX, has shown up less frequently in the public domain. Alleged renders of the aircraft reportedly surfaced on Chinese social media on the cover of an aeronautics magazine in early May 2018, according to The Diplomat. The image features the large, futuristic-looking aircraft outfitted with internal bomb bays and stealthy engines with a low IR signature, as well as a swept wing and tail design that indicate it is a supersonic capable airframe.
This aircraft’s stealth characteristics resemble an oversized YF-23 Black Widow II, which was the stealthier Joint Strike Fighter proposal that lost out to the F-35. Indeed, Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation — which allegedly won a contract to build the JH-XX — posted a scale model of this same concept in 2013. It would follow that the final aircraft would be based on these concept images.
The future of China’s stealth bomber fleet
While details about the H-20 project are scarce, reports indicate that a Chinese stealth bomber could fly as early as 2019. The JH-XX project appears to be the more ambitious of the two, and it is likely that it will take much longer to field a flying prototype.
But one major development concern for PLAAF is cost: the B-2 program resulted in 32 aircraft at $2 billion a pop, and the Pentagon’s next-generation B-21 stealth bomber is based on all of the research and development costs sunk into the B-2 project, which have (hopefully) allowed the program to keep the cost per unit at a manageable level.
There is the strong possibility that China has been able to drop their R&D costs by way of cyber espionage, essentially piggybacking off of the B-2 data they have acquired to create the H-20. With the JH-XX project, China would be starting from scratch. Even if they are basing the JH-XX on the YF-23 Black Widow II, they are not making a direct copy of an existing operational U.S. airframe which would make reverse engineering that much easier. This should result in a slower moving project and a pile of technical hurdles that they cannot enter a cheat code to solve.
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It is unlikely the H-6K fleet would be retired if the JH-XX and H-20 become operational. But as the U.S. invests in newer air defense technology, the H-6K will become a flying coffin in any shooting war in the Pacific. In order to boost A2D2 (anti-access/ area denial) and have a credible deterrent to the U.S. Pacific fleet, a stealth bomber capable of piercing U.S. air defenses is a requirement, not an option for the PLAAF.
But with the H-20 is likely right around the corner, the United States will have to contend with a stealth bomber that is able to both target Pentagon installations across in the Pacific and penetrate their air defenses. Guam may be a great place to take a vacation, but if the U.S. Air Force can’t defend it against a stealth bomber attack, it may be best to check out New Zealand instead.
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