The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) published an unclassified assessment of Chinese military developments on 15 January 2019. The report, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, disclosed that China is developing ‘new medium- and long-range stealth bombers to strike regional and global targets’, thus confirming long-standing rumours regarding a potential regional bomber. The development of a new strategic bomber, the H-20, had been confirmed by the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in 2016. The medium-range bomber is also described as a tactical bomber and a fighter-bomber in the DIA report: significantly, the new aircraft will reportedly possess a long-range air-to-air missile capability. The medium-range stealth bomber programme is indicative of China’s efforts to expand and enhance its air power capabilities, in particular through the pursuit of multiple fifth-generation aircraft (such as the J-20, J-31 and H-20), unmanned air systems, and an aircraft carrier force. It will also constitute a potent addition to China’s growing long-range strike capability. Although the DIA report does not provide detailed information concerning either of China’s stealth bomber programmes, it does offer useful insight, which together with other open-source analyses, enable some discussion of the regional bomber, its potential roles, and the implications both for the PLAAF and more broadly.
The Regional Bomber
China Military Power states that stealth technology is central to the development of the regional bomber and that it will employ ‘many fifth-generation fighter technologies’ (as will the H-20); the aircraft will include an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and be capable of delivering precision-guided munitions. The new bomber is not likely to enter service before 2025, nor has it been disclosed whether the aircraft will be subsonic or possess a supersonic capability. In this regard, if the regional bomber is indeed the JH-XX, a designation noted by observers in connection to a regional strike aircraft programme for a number of years, it will likely be supersonic. The JH-XX is believed to be a relatively large, twin-engine aircraft, possibly around 100 feet long with a maximum take-off weight of 60 to 100 tons, with a combat radius potentially around 1,500 miles (estimates vary between 1,000 and 2,000 miles). A combat radius of 1,500 miles would, for example, be sufficient to cover Japan, the Korean peninsula, (if operating from Hainan) the South China Sea and northern halves of Sumatra and Borneo plus the entirety of the Philippines, and from western or southern China, much of India and the Bay of Bengal. If forward deployed to the airfield on Panganiban Reef in the South China Sea, the regional bomber could threaten, with stand-off weaponry, targets in northern Australia. The JH-XX has been compared in concept to the FB-22 regional bomber project.
The armament of the regional bomber is likely to include a variety of precision-guided munitions, stand-off weapons (potentially including air-launched cruise missiles such as the CJ-10), and anti-ship missiles. In terms of the aforementioned long-range air-to-air missile capability, this could include the ramjet-powered PL-XX, a 400 km-range weapon featuring mid-course off-board targeting support and active radar and infra-red terminal guidance, and intended to target large platforms such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. The integration of a significant electronic warfare capability may be likely, given that the H-20 strategic bomber is described as ‘able to disturb and destroy incoming missiles and other air and ground targets through a range of equipment including radar, electronic confrontation platform, high power microwave, laser and infrared equipment’. Likewise, as with the H-20, the regional bomber may be ‘capable of large-capacity data fusion and transmission. It can serve as a C4ISR node and interact with large sensor platforms like UAV, early warning aircraft and strategic reconnaissance aircraft to share information and target data’. In this respect, the long-range air-to-air capability of the regional bomber may be particularly significant. That is, the aircraft could be employed as an extended-range interceptor utilising targeting support from unmanned air vehicles such as the Divine Eagle counter-stealth airborne early warning system. This would, assuming a 1,500-mile combat radius for the regional bomber, together with the 250-mile range of the PL-XX, enable the PLAAF to target high-value assets such as ISR aircraft and strategic bombers deep within ostensibly friendly airspace.
The development of the regional bomber, alongside the H-20 strategic bomber, reflects China’s ambition to develop world-class armed forces. The pursuit of two stealth bomber programmes alongside two known fifth-generation fighter projects – the J-20 and follow-on variants and the J-31, unmanned air systems, and hypersonic technologies provide a clear statement of intent concerning the level of air power Beijing is seeking. In this context, the regional bomber project is noteworthy. Although the US and Russia are working on strategic stealth bombers, the B-21 Raider and PAK DA (‘Prospective Aviation Complex for Long Range Aviation’) respectively, neither are known to be developing a manned sub-strategic bomber (Russia had previously sought to develop a stealthy medium-range bomber, the Sukhoi T-60S, to replace the Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire). The regional bomber, given its combination of stealth, precision-guided munitions and long-range air-to-air missiles, AESA radar, and other advanced systems, will provide the PLAAF with a potent ‘day one’ (the ability to conduct operations at the start of a conflict, against an adversary’s strategic targets defended by a still-intact integrated air defence system) capability.
The new aircraft will constitute a significant defensive challenge, in particular with regard to the find, fix, track, target, engage and assess (F2T2EA) process. Moreover, the potential for the regional bomber to be employed in a deep, offensive counter-air role would likely necessitate the diversion of allied fifth-generation aircraft from offensive operations to defend high-value assets. Also, is the development of the regional bomber intended to enable the PLAAF to focus its eventual H-20 force on strategic air operations, in particular, vis-à-vis US forces in the Pacific and potentially the continental US? Similarly, the H-20 is believed to be intended to have a nuclear role; will the regional bomber also be dual-capable? It also warrants asking whether an intermediate-range stealth aircraft offering precision-strike and long-range air-to-air capabilities should be considered by, for example, the US, UK, Australia and Japan? Would such an aircraft offer a sufficient level of capability, in particular against high-end anti-access/area denial and advanced air threats, to justify what would likely require considerable investment? The trajectory of Chinese air power development in the coming decades, the options it confers on policy-makers in Beijing, and the implications are likely to prompt too many more questions regarding the direction of Western air power.
Dr James Bosbotinis is a UK-based specialist in defence and international affairs, and Co-CEO of JB Associates, a geopolitical risk advisory. Dr Bosbotinis has written widely on British defence issues, Russian strategy and military modernisation, China’s evolving strategy, and regional security in Europe, the Former Soviet Union and Asia-Pacific.