Since the development of China’s long-awaited Xian H-20 bomber was first revealed in September 2016, there have been few solid details released about the aircraft. Speculation continues, however, and this month it was reported by the state-run Global Times that Beijing could be planning to soon conduct a flight test of the warplane.
According to reports, Ge Heping, party chief of the Chinese Flight Test Establishment under the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), said at a rally meeting on July 1 that personnel were being organized for a test flight of the H-20.
This could be another great leap forward for the People’s Liberation Army. As The War Zone reported, the H-20 is among Beijing’s most ambitious military aircraft projects to date, and it is the first fully “homegrown” long-range bomber, as well as an aircraft platform that has the potential to alter the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region.
Putting the Pieces Together
The Xian’s flying wing profile has earned comparisons to the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 Spirit bomber, as well as the upcoming B-21 Raider. However, few other details about the H-20 have been officially disclosed or made public. Last year, photos of the aircraft were reportedly published in the latest edition of Modern Weaponry, a magazine that is run by the state defense corporation China North Industries Group (Norinco). The four computer-generated images – if they can be believed – may have highlighted some of the bomber’s capabilities.
Based on that evidence the Xian H-20 may have an internal weapons bay (no surprise), two adjustable tail wings, an airborne radar at the front and two stealth air intakes on each side. In addition, the entire bomber could also be seen covered in a dark gray radar-absorbent material.
Various reports have suggested that the H-20 could be equipped with either conventional or nuclear missiles and that it would have a maximum take-off weight of at least 200 tonnes with a payload upwards of 45 tonnes. It has been speculated that the aircraft could fly at subsonic speeds and could also be armed with up to four hypersonic stealth cruise missiles.
A Twenty-Year Plan?
The bomber has been a long time in coming, and it is believed that the Chinese defense contractor Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation’s (XAC’s) 603 Aircraft Design Institute began development of the H-20 nearly 20 years ago. The group had considered both subsonic flying-wing and supersonic delta-wing configurations, while around 2011, the designers had reportedly settled on a subsonic flying wing, likely with four engines.
Based on what is also known at this point, XAC has prioritized stealth and distance over speed – and that could enable the bomber to strike distances that had been previously outside the range of the PLAAF bombers.
As the H-20 still hasn’t been officially acknowledged, few photos or even fewer details have ever been disclosed publicly, yet the shape and size of the aircraft is similar to that seen in a promotional video that was posted to state media in January 2021.
Titled, “Dream of Youth,” the recruiting video first appeared on YouTube on January 5, 2021, and it followed a pair of recruits – played by noted Chinese actors Jackson Yee and Wu Jing – as they join the PLAAF and become pilots. It ends with an unveiling of the aircraft that they’ll be flying. In the closing moments of the video, a previously unseen bomber was revealed in a type of dramatic fashion normally reserved for automotive trade shows – as a white sheet covering the aircraft was removed, revealing a flying wing design with two intakes at the back of the airframe. Seen only in a reflection of one of the pilot’s helmet visors it didn’t provide a detailed look at the aircraft, but across social media it was suggested the aircraft was in fact the H-20.
China’s “Dream of Youth”
That video was produced by the state firm Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the XAC. The early 2021 video followed a similar promotional “sizzle reel” that was released in May 2018, which also included a brief glimpse of a similar-looking aircraft partially exposed from under a sheet.
The number “20” has no special significance in Chinese numerology, yet, the “20 series” of military aircraft is still noteworthy. Yang Wei, chief designer of the Chinese-built Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon” – China’s single-seat, twinjet, all-weather, stealth fighter aircraft – previously told the state media Global Times that the “20” series includes more than the fighter or bomber.
The “20” is also comprised of the Y-20 transport plane and the Z-20 utility helicopter, as well as newly developed aircraft including the improved types of the J-16 and J-10 fighter jets, and even a series of drones. Yang told the state-media outlet that the J-20 will undergo further upgrades and that the use of domestically built engines is just the beginning for the fifth-generation aircraft, which will keep being improved in the fields of mechanization.
It remains unclear where the H-20 fits into the mix, but Yang added, “Chinese military enthusiasts’ dream will come true.”
He further suggested it is all part of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), under which AVIC will further develop the capability of the H-6 series bombers, but will speed up research into new platforms. Experts have taken that to mean the H-20, which could see great progress in the coming years, and that it could be a key component of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) goals in the Five-Year Plan.
The H-20 is certainly a notable component of Beijing’s effort to develop its world-class military.
When it arrives, the H-20 will be the first dedicated strategic bomber developed by China, and it is believed to be capable of carrying a variety of munitions and that it could have a maximum range of around 5,000 miles. Pentagon officials have expressed concerns that when the bomber enters service it would be able to target U.S. overseas territories including Guam, while military analysts have warned it could even reach Hawaii.
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.