What a Chinese aerospace magazine cover tells us about China’s future stealth bombers
In the last few weeks, a magazine cover for prominent Chinese aerospace magazine Aviation Knowledgefeatured a pair of stealthy bomber aircraft concepts. A small number of English language articles have commented on this aircraft, speculating whether its presence on the cover of Aviation Knowledge may indicate some subtle official Chinese military backing for this concept, and what its relationship to the future Chinese stealth bomber – commonly referred to as H-20 – might be.
This piece will seek to explore the current body of understanding towards the H-20. The potential role of the aircraft concept shown in the magazine will also be discussed.
Stealth Bomber Background
The world’s first true stealth bomber is the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 Spirit, an aircraft that first entered service in the 1990s. To today, the B-2 remains the single lone stealth bomber type in service among any military in the world.
The United States is looking to develop a new stealth bomber dubbed the B-21 Raider to enter service in the mid 2020s, and Russia is also known to be pursuing a stealth bomber of its own, commonly dubbed the PAK DA. China is the third nation developing a stealth bomber.
Official Chinese interest in a stealth bomber like the B-2 cannot be ascertained, however it is likely the PLAAF would have been informed of the B-2 through military intelligence well before the B-2 first deployed on its public mission. The B-2 first demonstrated its capabilities in the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, and it was a B-2 that bombed the Chinese embassy in the country — an event that China maintains was deliberate, and which the United States maintains as an accident. If the Chinese leadership were not aware of the capabilities of the B-2 before then, they would certainly have been conscious of it afterwards.
Official Chinese interest in a stealth bomber was also muted, and some cases of espionage acquiring B-2 related technologies only suggested China had interest for the applied technologies behind a stealth bomber. The extent of research and development, and political will, could not be ascertained.
Therefore, from the early 2000s up to 2010, it was generally assumed that research and development into a stealth bomber was being conducted, and China would one day develop and produce such an aircraft. But whether it would emerge in the immediate future or longer term future was unknown. No official designation for this bomber existed, but in popular circulation it was referred variously as H-8, H-9, H-10 and H-X.
Developments Since 2010
The unveiling of the J-20 stealth fighter in late 2010, and the later unveiling of the Y-20 strategic transport in 2012, changed the calculus for expectations surrounding the H-X. These two projects demonstrated a degree of mastery in the technologies behind RF stealth, and developing and building large sized aircraft, respectively.
Since 2010 – and in particular since the advancement of Y-20 through the prototype test stage – a number of new persistent, and credible rumors surrounding the H-X had emerged, solidifying some understandings of China’s upcoming stealth bomber:
- The aircraft has long been planned, and became 603 Institute and XAC’s new “priority” after the successful research and development of the Y-20 and its procession into the test stage
- The aircraft would almost certainly be designated H-20
- H-20 would adopt a stealthy flying wing configuration with internal weapon bays
- H-20 would likely have four engines, most likely four non-afterburning WS-10 variant engines
- The flying wing configuration had once been in competition with a supersonic, non-stealthy (or with only minor stealth features) strategic bomber that may have adopted a delta wing and canard configuration (the description of which sounds reminiscent of the XB-70
- Construction of the first prototype or demonstrator may have begun in 2015 and may have rolled out in mid 2017
Additional commentary surrounding the H-20 also occurred from official PLA-affiliated sources. One comment, from PLA Air Force General Ma Xiaotian in 2016, stated “our long range strike capability has much improved compared to the past, and an even bigger improvement is coming. We are developing a new generation of long range bomber.” This raised eyebrows among many Chinese military watchers, because in the 2009 PLAAF General He Weirong made a similar remark to expect a Chinese 4th generation (5th in international parlance) fighter to emerge in coming years and to enter service between 2017 and 2019 – a prediction that has been borne out.
Another intriguing article at the PLA affiliated ChinaMilitary.cn website in mid-2017 gave some remarkable details surrounding the H-20 and what its potential missions and parameters might be. While the eventual authenticity of these characteristics may or may not bear out, they are certainly sensible:
- Reaffirmation that H-20 would adopt a flying wing configuration with “good stealth performance”
- An intercontinental range, with numbers stated of a combat radius over 5,000 kilometers
- A lower payload than B-2, but a substantially larger payload than H-6K, which would correspond to a modern large aircraft powered by four non-afterburning WS-10s
- Capable of carrying nuclear and conventional payloads
Additional characteristics also suggest the PLAAF envisions the H-20 to be a more multirole aircraft than traditional bombers like the B-2, and is more reminiscent of roles the USAF has called for their B-21 Raider:
- “Almost as good as a special electronic combat aircraft in electronic combat capability”
- The mounting of high powered radar, high powered microwave, and laser and infrared equipment to effect and destroy missiles and other air to ground targets
- Large capacity data fusion and transmission, which aligns with the PLA’s overall understanding of informationized warfare
- Acting as a C4ISR node and “interacting” with a large number of platforms such as UAVs, AEW&C, and reconnaissance aircraft to share information and target data
The inclusion of those criteria aligns with the current global trend towards increased C4ISR integration between sensor platforms and shooter platforms. The PLAAF are not new to the importance of systems-of-systems approach to aerial warfare, and would have followed USAF developments in 5th generation fighters and their own programs to develop robust networking, including the similarly still under development B-21.
Finally, given the timeline of H-20’s known mile stones, when compared with the milestones of Y-20, it is expected that the first H-20 could formally roll out sometime in 2019 at the earliest, with a maiden flight possibly in 2020. A more detailed analysis carried out by Andreas Rupprecht, can be accessed here.
Finally, this takes us back to the stealthy bomber concept seen in the magazine cover.
This concept was first leaked online around 2013, at what appeared to be some sort of aerospace convention. The model showed an aircraft with top mounted air intakes, a large ventral weapons bay, and a side bay for what appeared to be a beyond visual range air to air missile. Given the configuration of the model, it was assessed to have two engines, and intended for some level of supersonic performance (either dash, or supercruise, dependent on the power plant).
Additional rumors in the following years suggested that this concept was not merely some flight of fantasy, but may have been under serious contention by the PLAAF.
Based on the BVRAAM (beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile) side weapons bay, a reasonable estimate places its length at around 30 meters. Factoring in that the aircraft is equipped with only two power plants (with the likely engines being either uprated WS-10 variants, the still under development WS-15), while carrying weapons internally and seeking achieve supersonic performance, a reasonable estimated (internal payload) MTOW of this aircraft is not likely to exceed 60-70 tons.
In other words, this bomber is not likely to be in the same weight class as the four-engined H-20.
This is not to suggest the aircraft is anymore “conventional” or inherently less stealthy than flying wing stealth bombers. The aerodynamic configuration of this concept is somewhat reminiscent of the YF-23, with swept wings and V tails but with fairly exotic top mounted air intakes, and a main weapons bay that is obviously intended to be capable of carrying a decent sized air to surface payload. A side weapons bay likely sized for BVRAAMs are also visible. This suggests a stealthy VLO airframe capable of some level of supersonic flight.
Such an aircraft would have a combat radius well below the H-20’s 5,000+ km, but may instead be sized for 1,500-2,000 km. The JH-XX (as it was eventually dubbed by much of the Chinese military watching community) also likely had a smaller internal payload capacity compared to the H-20, given its size and the structural demands of supersonic flight.
The JH-XX would likely represent a supersonic, stealthy regional deep strike capability with long endurance and long range (compared to fighter sized stealth aircraft like F-22, F-35 and J-20). Such an aircraft would have the ability to carry a small number of large powered munitions, such as a pair of YJ-12 supersonic ship missiles or heavy land attack cruise missiles, or a larger number of precision guided direct attack munitions.
Such an aircraft would leverage a combination of stealth, speed, onboard electronic warfare capabilities, to penetrate well monitored and defended airspace to target high value targets, in a manner that even a stealthy flying wing may be less capable of doing. Potential targets may include anything from carrier strike groups (CSGs) to well defended airbases and radar sites, or any range of naval and strike missions including SEAD/DEAD. The aircraft’s large internal payload capacity and side BVRAAM bays may also hint at a secondary long range, high persistence interceptor role, capable of carrying a large number of BVRAAMs such as PL-15, or even a number of the new ultra long range PL-X air to air missiles. These roles of course, also do not consider the networking, electronic attack, and drone control capabilities that were previously mentioned for the H-20 and which would likely be present in some form if the JH-XX had been pursued.
Fundamentally, the JH-XX likely sits in a different weight class to the H-20, with a different range, payload capacity and role. To the best of our knowledge the JH-XX does not seem to be actively pursued, or at the very least does not seem to be in as advanced stages of development as the H-20.
Therefore, the JH-XX on the cover of Aviation Knowledge is almost certainly not the next Chinese stealth bomber that will emerge in coming years. The choice to depict the JH-XX on the cover may be a case of deliberate misinformation, or some sort of official muzzling of what the magazine could depict in relation to the H-20 at this stage.
This is not to say that the JH-XX has zero chance of being developed and produced. The PLA would find many uses for JH-XX, and there are some recent cryptic indications that the H-20 could be complemented by another separate bomber type in the future. Whatever the number or mixture of future stealth bombers that the PLAAF decides to procure in the future, at the present it is understood that the H-20 is the lone stealth bomber type in advanced development which will emerge in the near future.
The much superior range of H-20 would allow H-20s to be operated in much more secure airbases deep in China’s heartland, while still having the range and endurance to target bases and naval formations operating over 2,000 kilometers from China’s coast. The greater internal payload of H-20 would also allow a single H-20 sortie to carry the payload that multiple JH-XX sorties would require. Finally, if the PLAAF ever did have a requirement to carry out true intercontinental range bombing missions (i.e.: 10,000 km or greater), and if China did have access to bases around the globe for aerial refueling, then the H-20 would be a far superior global bomber platform than the JH-XX would be, as it would require far less aerial refueling.
In other words, the JH-XX’s is likely more “specialized” towards a regional high intensity conflict role but would be very hard pressed to operate beyond a regional theatre, whereas the H-20 would be able to operate in a regional conflict, but would also have the range provide Chinese leadership the option to exert global strike capabilities beyond the regional theater if the circumstances ever presented itself.
Rick Joe is a longtime follower of Chinese military developments, with a focus on air and naval platforms. His content and write ups are derived from cross examination of open source rumors and information.
Rick has also written at his own personal blog, an archive of which can be found at plarealtalk.com. He is active on Reddit and can be found on Twitter.