Lifting the Curtain Off China's Secret Stealth Bomber Programs
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By Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest
In January 2018, two sentences in an annual report by the DIA on Chinese military power sent a minor shockwave rippling across the defense-related internet:
“The PLAAF is developing new medium- and long-range stealth bombers to strike regional and global targets. Stealth technology continues to play a key role in the development of these new bombers, which probably will reach initial operational capability no sooner than 2025.”
(This first appeared several months ago.)
Bombers, plural*.* In a separate chart, an un-designated next-generation “Tactical Bomber” is listed, denoted as being equipped with a high-resolution Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, precision-guided bombs and long-range air-to-air missiles.
In the last few years, China’s development of what appears to be a subsonic long-range heavy strategic bomber called the H-20 has become increasingly evident—especially in 2018, when the Chinese government began teasing a public unveiling to take place in 2019. The flying wing bomber, which apparently resembles the U.S. B-2 Spirit in form and function, is to be produced by Xi’an Aircraft Corporation, which already manufactures older H-6 strategic bombers and the chubby Y-20 transport plane.
However, the stealth “tactical” or “medium” bomber was news—sort of. The fighter-bomber in question is believed to refer to the JH-XX, a rival stealth bomber concept proposed by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation believed to have been passed over in favor of the longer-range H-20. Shenyang is better known for producing fighters, including Chinese derivatives of the Russian Flanker jet and a J-31 stealth fighter which may be exported or serve on Chinese aircraft carriers.
The first image of this JH-XX concept was leaked at a convention in 2013. Then in May 2018, the prestigious Chinese magazine Aviation Knowledge flashed concept art on its cover of a futuristic-looking stealth jet measuring roughly thirty meters in length, with two huge turbofan engines atop the rear fuselage, canted tail-stabilizers near identical to Northrop’s YF-23 Black Widow stealth prototype, a big bomb bay in the belly and side weapon-bays for carrying long-range air-to-air missiles. This image has since inspired model kits and online fan-art. (One should bear in mind that speculative artwork of the “F-19 stealth fighter” in the 1980s ended up bearing little resemblance to the actual F-117 stealth jet.)
It’s not clear why the DIA believes the JH-XX is actively under development. Rick Joe of The Diplomat, who has written arguably the most detailed English-language profile of the JH-XX prior to the DIA report, expressed his skepticism in a series of tweets:
“Regarding the DIA report ‘confirming’ a PLA stealthy medium bomber; the info hasn’t changed since last year when I wrote this piece: ‘To the best of our knowledge the JH-XX does not seem to be actively pursued…’”
“Now, maybe the DIA report was based on classified intel the public is not privy to, but from the quality of the rest of the report I doubt it,” he said in a separate tweet. “Chances are they relied on some open source/public articles about JH-XX and interpreted them a bit over zealously.”
Thus, it may be prudent to wait for further evidence to emerge before taking the JH-XX’s active development as a given.
Why would PLA even order two types of stealth bombers? Effectively, the JH-XX would represent a different set of design compromises. The H-20 trades speed in exchange for greater payload, range and stealth. The ‘game plan’ is for such a bomber is to penetrate enemy airspace without being detected at all, as it doesn’t have the agility to evade enemy fighters or missiles. It’s projected range of five thousand miles would allow it strike targets across the Pacific, especially if combined with aerial refueling and long-range missiles.
The JH-XX would likely have shorter range (900-1500 miles) and a smaller payload than the H-20, but would be much faster at speeds up to twice the speed of sound. (Note, however, that friction generate at Mach 2 may erode the expensive coatings of radar-absorbent materials on stealth aircraft.) Thus, while an JH-XX might eventually be detected as it sprints towards its target, the combination of speed and reduced detection range would theoretically give interceptors and air defenses too little time to react.
Overall, the H-20’s long range and heavier payload is more useful to the PLA. However, the JH-XX would bring a different mix of capabilities and might be better for penetrating certain very dense air-defense networks where evading detection may not be possible even for a stealthy H-20.
The United States and the Australian Air Force formerly operated supersonic F-111 Aardvark regional bombers that had a similar mission profile, though lacking in stealth characteristics. Furthermore, in the early 2000s, the Pentagon considered procuring bomber variants of the Raptor stealth fighter and the YF-23before passing on that idea in favor of the B-21 Raider strategic stealth bomber. In fact, Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithick at The Drive speculate that the JH-XX concept may have been informed in part by technical documents possibly acquired by Chinese hackers for these aircraft.
Unlike the H-20, the JH-XX’s high speed would make it viable for carrying air-to-air missiles, not only for self-defense, but for hit-and-run attacks on vulnerable support planes, or to rapidly intercept incoming bombers. While the JH-XX likely wouldn’t be optimized for short-range aerial dogfights against highly maneuverable fighters, its stealth, speed and large payload could still make it a deadly delivery platform for beyond-visual range air-to-air missiles.
One last intriguing application of the JH-XX concept could be naval strike. The PLA Naval Air Force currently operates 250 JH-7 ‘Flying Leopard’ supersonic naval strike bomber. These non-stealthy planes depend on long-range anti-ship missiles and electronic warfare to overcome the formidable air defenses of modern surface warships. A stealth fighter bomber could conceivably get much closer to, say, an opposing carrier-task force, before being detected—giving the targeted vessels a much smaller window to engage their defenses. Of course, stealth capabilities might also make the JH-XX an especially survivable electronic warfare and spy plane in its own right. Naval analyst Robert Farley has speculated that the JH-XX might even be intended for carrier deployment.
If the JH-XX is truly under active development, then additional rumors and photos may eventually surface. Until then, the supersonic stealth-bomber’s development status must come with an asterisk, even if that won’t dissuade model-makers and defense writers alike from speculation.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
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