Intel Report Confirms China Developing Stealthy Tactical Bomber In Addition To Strategic Bomber

News of China's development of a long-range stealth fighter bomber is a punch to the gut to those who long championed a similar concept for the USAF.

Chinese Internet

An arm of the U.S. Intelligence Community has publicly confirmed the existence of not one, but two Chinese stealth bomber development programs for the first time in a new report. In addition to the much-reported H-20 stealth heavy bomber program, China is also working on a smaller, regionally-focused stealthy bomber, commonly referred to as JH-XX. 

This new information was contained in the Defense Intelligence Agency's (DIA) latest China Military Power report, which the Agency released on Jan. 15, 2019. DIA restarted issuing its "Military Power" unclassified public reviews, which trace their origins to the Cold War-era Soviet Military Power reports, in 2017. This new examination of China's capabilities says the information it contains is up to date as of November 2018. 

"The PLAAF [People's Liberation Army Air Force] is developing new medium- and long-range stealth bombers to strike regional and global targets," an annex of the report explains. "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."

The report offers few specific details on the designs of these aircraft and does not assign a nomenclature to either one of them. "These new bombers will have additional capabilities, with full-spectrum upgrades compared with current operational bomber fleets, and will employ many fifth-generation fighter technologies in their design," the review says broadly.

Though the report never mentions it by name in the text, a footnote confirms that the "long-range stealth bomber" in question is the Xian H-20. This aircraft is widely believed to be a flying wing design very loosely analogous to the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit.

This aircraft will reportedly have a roughly 4,000 to 5,000 mile combat radius, be able to carry heavy weapons loads internally, and, according to DIA, have an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar to better spot targets, threats, and other hazards. The Agency's report also says it will be able to carry vague "precision-guided munitions." This will likely include a wide range of weapons, from direct attack smart bombs to standoff weaponry such as land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles. 

AVIC capture via China Defense Online

There is no official pictures or concept art of the H-20, but Xian's parent company, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, or AVIC, released this shot as part of a promotional film in May 2018. The framing here apes a Northrop Grumman television ad that aired during Superbowl XLIX in 2015, which teased an eventual reveal of the B-21 bomber. 

With a load of CJ-10K or CJ-20 land-attack cruise missiles, both of which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, the H-20 would give China a completely new strategic capability and a new way to hold targets across the Pacific and Asia at risk. "The bomber’s deployment would provide China with its first credible nuclear triad of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air – a posture considered since the Cold War to improve survivability and strategic deterrence," DIA's report notes. 

With anti-ship missiles, the stealthy, long-range bombers could present a new and significant threat to hostile warships, especially American carrier battle groups. This would give the Chinese an additional means of denying access to certain portions of the Pacific during a crisis or at least force its opponents to reassess their risk calculus, which might prompt them to change or slow their advances. Even acting as a long-range sensor platform and targeting node alone, the H-20 could provide targeting information to other weapons located hundreds or even thousands of miles away. You can read more about the possibilities the H-20 could open up for the PLAAF here and here.

DIA's report does not point directly to any existing public reporting when discussing the "medium bomber," which it also describes as a "tactical bomber" and a "fighter-bomber." However, this is almost certainly a reference to a design from the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation that has come to be known as the JH-XX. 

DIA

A table showing Chinese fixed-wing aviation developments, including both the H-20 "Strategic Bomber" and the JH-XX "Tactical Bomber."

Some have suggested that the JH-XX was Shenyang's bid for the strategic bomber program, which then lost out to the H-20. DIA's report indicates that these are, in fact, two distinct projects. Images of a model of the smaller aircraft first emerged online in 2013 and the design likely predates that considerably. The H-20 has reportedly been in development since the early 2000s and the J-20 stealth fighter project dates back to the late 1990s. 

The model, which has since served as a basis for various unofficial fan art, has a fighter-like swept wing, twin-taileron, lifting body planform with two engines each fed by separate air intakes on top of the fuselage behind the cockpit. As with the H-20, DIA's report says the aircraft will feature an AESA radar.

Chinese Internet

The cover of the May 2018 edition of Chinese magazine Aviation Knowledge featuring some of the most recent unofficial concept art of the JH-XX. Aviation Knowledge is the country's oldest aviation-specific publication, publishing its first issue in 1958.

Previous reports had described the JH-XX model as having a main ventral weapons bay, as well as separate side-mounted bays for what appeared to be air-to-air missiles. DIA's report makes specific reference to the aircraft's ability to employ "long-range" air-to-air missiles, which China is actively testing, as well as "precision-guided munitions." 

Those same reports have suggested the aircraft could have a maximum takeoff weight of anywhere from 60 to 100 tons, but the lower end seems more plausible given the plane's estimated length of around 100 feet. It would also have a far shorter combat radius than the H-20, with estimates ranging from approximately 1,000 to 2,000 miles, to match its focus on more localized, regional targets sets and mission. 

With this range, the JH-XX would still have the ability to challenge strategic type targets, such as U.S. military facilities in Japan and possibly even on Guam, as well as bases in India, the South China Sea and beyond. The design could prioritize speed, as well as stealth, too. This could give the smaller fighter-bomber added advantages when it comes to sortie rates and for successfully penetrating through an enemy's integrated air defense network. Above all else, it allows for multi-role operations, including supporting long-range air-to-air missions, without a heavy reliance on vulnerable tankers or even the use of coastal airfields, which would be the most vulnerable to attack during an all-out conflict.

DIA

A map from DIA's 2019 China Military Power report showing the locations of major PLAAF units, including existing bomber divisions, across the country.

The confirmed existence of larger and smaller Chinese stealth bomber aircraft programs is a welcome revelation in that it clears up much confusion as far as what has been talked about in the press over the years. The details of these two disparate programs have been chronically conflated in the media, leading to very strange and conflicting capability claims. This clears much of that up and will allow for a much clearer understanding of information in the future, as well as higher-quality analysis. 

All told, this Chinese regional bomber concept appears to be analogous to the U.S. penetrating 'regional fighter-bomber' concepts of the mid-2000s. Lockheed Martin's proposed FB-22 concept and Northrop Grumman's FB-23 concept were put forward for a tender that never came to be. The FB-22 was to have been an enlarged (stretched) derivative of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter that would have also been able to carry a mix of air-to-ground munitions and air-to-air missiles. The larger design would have provided space for additional fuel, another crew member, far more weapons housed in an elongated and deeper weapons bay and in stealthy enclosures under its wings, and even additional communications and sensor packages.

There were reportedly up to six different design concepts under the FB-22 initiative, though most concept art shows an enlarged, delta-winged aircraft based directly on a stretched F-22 with or without the original aircraft's twin tail. This proposed FB-22's combat radius would have been similar to those of the JH-XX and the plane would have been able to carry 15,000 pounds of munitions while maintaining a high degree of low-observability. External racks would have boosted that payload to 30,000 pounds for missions where maximum stealth was not a requisite. Focusing on speed, as well as stealth, the aircraft would have retained supercruise capability from its fighter brethren. The Raptor's 2D thrust vectoring nozzles would have been omitted for a lighter, less complex but also low observable fixed design. 

Lockheed Martin

An artist's conception of an FB-22 with the twin tail. Other design concepts show it without.

While the JH-XX may have a similar mission set to the FB-22, Northrop Grumman's FB-23 concept is far more similar to the scant amount of imagery we have that possibly depicts the Chinese design. In fact, the design of Shenyang's model, and the fan art that built on that, looks largely lifted from the proposed follow-on to the defunct YF-23 program. You can read a bit about this concept in this past piece of ours. In fact, the tail and rear-fuselage design looks to be an exact copy.

Although it would have lacked commonality with a then in-production design, the FB-23 would have been ideally suited for the regional fighter-bomber role, as it would have built on the unique traits of the YF-23. Some of these features actually hurt its chances in the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition against the YF-22, but would have been ideal for a very-low-observable, high-performance, long-range strike-fighter platform.

Northrop Grumman

An artist's conception of the FB-23.

The general similarities between the supposed requirements for the JH-XX and these past American combat aircraft concepts strongly suggest that the Chinese were at least watching the U.S. very closely before the U.S. Air Force canceled its regional bomber sometime around 2006. It is also very possible that China acquired actual data through espionage about one or more of the designs and used that information to support its own developments. 

There would be some precedent for this. Chinese intelligence operatives and hackers have stolen massive sums of sensitive information relating to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a model of a similarly shaped aircraft, now commonly known as the J-31 or FC-31, appeared a few years later. The J-20 stealth fighter also has some sensitive features in common with the F-35, as well as the F-22, further showing that American designs at least influence their Chinese counterparts. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is known that China's pilfering of American stealth and aerospace technology goes so deep that they were actually regularly listening in on virtual design meetings for these and other programs. 

It's possible the JH-XX could end up looking entirely different as well, but its mission sit seems clear, which informs the design either way. So whatever the exact origins of the JH-XX concept, its existence underscores what we have been saying for many years, that a regional fighter-bomber, one that isn't addicted to vulnerable tanker gas, is the aircraft the USAF has needed all along. Instead, the powers that be blindly pursued a fleet of fifth-generation fighters that have their combat radius measured in hundreds of miles. 

Chinese Internet

The origin of this art isn't clear, but it is clearly an extrapolation of official model design and what has been rumored about China's regional fighter-bomber initiative that has now been confirmed by the DIA.

Fast forward to today and those aircraft do not have the range needed to pierce a peer state's anti-access buffer zone around their territorial interests. The USAF is finally examining procuring a stealthy tanker to help overcome some of the operational issues with its very expensive but short-ranged stealth fighter fleet that will measure in the thousands of aircraft in the coming decades. But a stealthy tanker is an expensive treatment for a fully foreseeable and preventable illness, not an outright cure. 

If the B-21 Raider stealth bomber ends up being built in large numbers, as in well over 100 units, this deficiency could be addressed to some extent as well. But those bombers alone still won't provide the flexibility or sortie rates that smaller regional fighter-bomber aircraft would. In fact, the two together would make the ultimate anti-access strategy defeating team.  

Beyond America's chronic case of missed air combat capability opportunities, this is yet another example of China picking up where the United States left off to continue pursuing promising advanced military technology and weapons concepts. The Chinese are similarly moving ahead with naval electromagnetic railguns and stealthy unmanned combat air vehicles as American interest in those developments has stagnated, at least publicly. This is to say nothing of People's Liberation Army's (PLA) other major military developments in recent years, including the construction of multiple aircraft carriers, a growing fleet of increasingly capable nuclear-powered and advanced diesel-electric submarines, work on hypersonic weapons, fielding of long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, and much more.

"China shifted funds and efforts to acquiring technology by any means available. ... The result of this multifaceted approach to technology acquisition is a PLA on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world," the DIA report notes in its executive summary. "In some areas, it already leads the world."

Now, China may be getting close to fielding both a long-range stealthy flying wing and a stealthy deep-penetrating regional strike platform as soon as 2025 with the initial rollout of the H-20 possibly occurring as soon as the end of this year.

All this underscores what we have highlighted for so long, that the DoD has long underestimated China's determination, espionage capabilities, and technological resourcefulness. And we are now paying for that nearsightedness in the form of an ever eroding edge in technological supremacy.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com