Following the debut of the American B-21 strike stealth bomber in December, the U.S. military demonstrated to the world that all three legs of its nuclear triad are undergoing strategic modernization efforts.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) “B-2 copycat” – the H-20 bomber – is expected to enter service within the decade.
Once commissioned, China’s first-ever nuclear-capable strategic bomber could reach targets within the United States.
This capability, in addition to the H-20’s weapons capacity and other unknowns, is deeply troubling.
While the U.S. B-2 Spirit remains the only operational stealth bomber in the world today, a PLA near-pear may soon enter the picture.
A brief history of the Xian H-20 bomber
Although China’s stealth bomber program was not officially recognized until 2016, the PLAAF likely began working on initial bomber designs in the early 2000s.
A top Northrop Grumman design engineer was charged with violating the Arms Export Control Act in 2005 after being caught selling B-2 bomber information to Beijing.
By 2013, Chinese aviation expert Andreas Ruppercht released renderings of models that emulated the development of a pending Chinese stealth bomber.
One year later, a state-run Chinese media outlet reported that the PLAAF was working on an “intercontinental strategic bomber capable of penetrating an enemy’s air defenses.” The Aviation Industry Corporation of China released a video in 2018 depicting a bomber underneath a drop cloth that is believed to be the H-20.
The H-20’s potential capabilities are worrying U.S. analysts
While so much remains unknown regarding the airframe, the PRC is undoubtedly working to achieve full air superiority in an effort to surpass its adversaries.
Analysts believe that the H-20 bomber could have a range of 8,500 kilometers, raising concerns that the airframe could reach beyond the first Island Chain off the coast of China and into Japan, the Philippines, or even the U.S. territory of Guam.
A 2018 Pentagon assessment also detailed how the development of a refuelable bomber would pose even more risks for the United States.
The PLAAF could “expand long-range offensive bomber capability beyond the second island chain” if a refuelable bomber were developed. U.S. analysts also believe that the H-20 will feature an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.
A report published by The Drive indicated that the radar might use conformal antennas and have a primary armament of subsonic cruise missiles.
Design-wise, the H-20 appears to be an American B-2 Spirit copycat.
Based on imagery and videos released in China, analysts believe the H-20 will sport a flying wing design, which provides vital stealth advantages.
Since the airframe has no fuselage or tail, the H-20 could fly with low drag and high structural efficiency. Additionally, this type of design generates more lift compared to other fixed-wing airframes and is effective at limiting detection from high and low-frequency radar bands.
Regardless of the extent of abilities China’s incoming H-20 stealth bomber will possess, one thing remains abundantly clear.
Beijing is working tirelessly to develop a military arsenal that will at least match the prowess of the United States.
Consequentially, the PRC’s efforts to achieve a “world-class military” by 2049 are well underway.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.