China lacks an advanced bomber. Can the H-20 ‘Water’ quench its need?


Enter the H-20.

Promotional videos by the PLA Air Force over the years suggest that China’s bomber – like the American B-2 – features a stealthy flying wing design and low-observable coating.

Although the H-20’s specifications are not known, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress in 2021 said it was likely to have a range of at least 8,500km (5,280 miles), with a payload of at least 10 tonnes and the capability to employ conventional and nuclear weapons. It might also be carrying China’s hypersonic weapons, the report said.

The range would enable an intercontinental attacking radius: for China, it means the second island chain in the Pacific, such as Guam, or even farther to Hawaii, or the west coast of America with aerial refuelling. This elevates a homeland defence-focused air force into a global offensive power.

It is believed the aim is to give it some capabilities similar to fifth-generation fighters – such as stealth, super manoeuvrability, super situational awareness and, potentially, supersonic cruise – which would allow it to penetrate enemy defences undetected and be largely unstoppable.

“[The H-20] is a major upgrade, another generation of new planes,” said Wang Wei, deputy commander of the PLA Air Force, on the sidelines of China’s “two sessions” political gathering in March.

“A new generation of equipment would bring a new generation of combat power. It is something to be proud of, and something to be excited about.”

The Chinese Air Force is believed to be on the verge of showcasing the H-20 bomber to the world. Photo: X/SouthToday5

Final jigsaw piece of a nuclear triad

Together with land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and sea-based ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), a strategic bomber capable of firing nuclear warheads completes the so-called “nuclear triad”, the full nuclear deterrent once only possessed by Cold War superpowers America and Russia.

In the event of a nuclear attack, it would be difficult for the attacker to simultaneously neutralise all the nuclear capabilities of a country with diversified deployment and delivery platforms – and that country could maintain a credible threat of retaliation.

The long-range strategic bomber, the most difficult of the triad to maintain and operate, is essentially offensive equipment primarily targeted at other nuclear powers thousands of kilometres away as part of the country’s strategic deterrent – although it could also be used to intimidate a nearby adversary.

The advantages of the air-based nuclear prong – namely, the strategic bombers – are a mixture of flexibility and clear signalling of deterrence, according to Zhao Tong, a senior fellow with the nuclear policy programme of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in Beijing.

“Unlike missiles that cannot be recalled once launched, strategic bombers offer a degree of flexibility. During a crisis they can be dispatched towards an enemy but recalled based on evolving circumstances,” he said.

Meanwhile, the presence of bombers on runways or at take-off are easily detected by enemy satellites, which could be used to send a clear and effective intention of deterrence.

“Routine flights, such as a patrol over the Western Pacific, do not necessarily indicate an imminent strike but … serve to convey the readiness and willingness to use force if necessary,” Zhao said.

He said bombers were better able to survive once airborne compared with silo-based ICBMs, especially within home airspace or far from enemy territory, making them difficult to target and destroy.

For China, which pledges a “no first use” principle for nuclear weapons, it was particularly significant to ensure its nuclear forces survived a first strike and could retaliate with a second strike.

But the strategic bomber is probably the weakest leg in China’s triad, with the H-6 being the least advanced strategic bomber in service in the world – even though it is the only country to have a strategic bomber besides the US and Russia.

End of the endless H-6s?

The Soviet Union’s earliest jet bomber, the twin-engined Tupolev Tu-16, was introduced to China in the 1950s with a production licence, and has since been built as the H-6 by the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation. It carried out the country’s first aerial nuclear weapon test in 1965, and a dozen more followed.

In subsequent decades, more than 20 variants of the platform were developed for a range of purposes, from aerial refuelling to electronic warfare, with improvements and construction continuing into the 2020s. It is estimated the PLAAF still runs more than 230 planes in the H-6 family.

The latest nuclear-capable bomber variant, H-6N, is subsonic, has a 6,000km range, is capable of a 15-tonne payload and is loaded with stand-off cruise missiles.

In comparison, the Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber could fly at more than twice the speed of sound and load 40 tonnes of weight. The American B-2 boasts super stealth and even the US B-52, also an aircraft from the 1950s, carries up to 32 tonnes of weapons.

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As part of the nuclear deterrence to pose a threat to the US, the H-6N’s strike radius could theoretically cover Hawaii, or even part of the west coast of North America if it refuels in the air.

But in practice, this decades-old platform is so easily detected and vulnerable to the modern air-defence system it could not travel the distance without being intercepted, according to the Chinese military magazine Ordnance Industry Science Technology.

“Due to the very limited penetration ability, the H-6N’s substantive nuclear deterrence capability is also very limited,” it said in an analysis, adding that the flying wing design and low-observable coating of the H-20 could enable strong penetration.

“H-20 carrying nuclear missiles could offer a more realistic and substantial nuclear deterrent … With the H-20, China will achieve strategic breakthroughs and significantly expand its strategic space.”

Struggles of the big planes

As early as the 1970s, the PLAAF put forward a request for a “long-range strategic bomber”, which could carry 7 tonnes of weapons to fly 11,000km, but the project did not get far.

Around the same period, proposals for a large military airlifter, the Y-9, and a large passenger plane, Y-10, were also raised. The Y-9 was cancelled two years later, and the Y-10 completed several test flights before being aborted in a budget shortage in 1986.

The failure of the “big 3” – the Y-9 airlifter, Y-10 passenger plane and the Chinese Air Force’s unnamed “long-range strategic bomber” – was considered a big blow in the Chinese aviation industry. The projects were finally revived in 2007.

The rapid completion of the Y-20 and C919 made the progress of the H-20 appear to lag. Many observers, including Pentagon officials, believe the development to be stuck with technical difficulties and still “years away” from becoming a real threat.
Beijing intends the H-20 next-gen stealth bomber to match the United States’ B-2 Spirit and B-21 Raider bombers. Photo: X/SouthToday5

Speculation even occurred that the Water might be cancelled given the growing importance of drones in modern battlefields and its slow development compared to the PLA’s urgent needs.

But Chinese military commentator Song Zhongping said this was not likely.

“A stealth strategic bomber, with its long operational range, super penetration and heavy load of mass destructive ground attack weaponry, has an irreplaceable role other equipment could never match,” he said.

Jin Canrong, an international relations professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said the delay was probably because the US Air Force announced its B-21 Raider last year, a smaller, much cheaper strategic bomber with more advanced avionics for situational awareness compared to the 35-year-old B-2. The B-21 is expected to enter service by 2027.

Jin said a strategic bomber was such an expensive piece of equipment it had to be the most advanced.

“So, I believe the H-20 is now adjusted to be matching the B-21 specifications instead of B-2.”

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PLA says watch this (air) space

The most recent official source talking about the H-20 was PLA Air Force deputy commander Wang Wei, whose comments in March included a statement that a formal announcement about the H-20 would take place “soon”.

“There are no technical difficulties. Our researchers are doing well and very capable,” Wang said.

In its June edition, Ordnance Industry Science Technology magazine analysed technical aspects of the stealth bomber and suggested all major obstacles had either been solved in the PLA’s previous projects or were moving forward smoothly.

The aerodynamics of a flying wing airframe design have been trialled on drones, such as the GJ-11 that was revealed in 2019, and the radar-absorbent coating material was applied to J-20 stealth fighters in operation. The magazine said the quick success of the Y-20 project was proof that a complex, large military aircraft development project of this scale was achievable.

The domestic production of powerful aviation engines, a long-standing problem with Chinese-made planes, has also shown signs of having overcome technical bottlenecks, the journal said, with plans to fix the home-grown CJ-1000 engines to the C-919, and WS-20 engines powering the Y-20.

“Through the development of J-20, Y-20 and other new-generation aircraft, the Chinese aviation industry has grown by leaps and bounds with sufficient experience accumulated for large and advanced planes. There are indeed no significant technical difficulties remaining,” it concluded.



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