In January 2018, two sentences in an annual report by the DIA on Chinese military power sent shockwaves through defense establishment circles:
“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.”
Bombers, plural. That’s right, two stealth bombers. To say Pentagon officials were concerned, is an understatement.
According to a report by Sebastien Roblin in National Interest, over 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 US 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, the National Interest reported.
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.
It’s not clear why the DIA believes the JH-XX is actively under development. Why would PLA even order two types of stealth bombers? Perhaps that old military adage, “always fear the worst,” may be holding sway with US military planners.
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 refuelling and long-range missiles.
The JH-XX would likely have shorter range (900-1,500 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, the National Interest reported.
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 US and the Australian Air Force formerly operated supersonic F-111 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-23 before 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, the National Interest reported.
So concerned, is the Pentagon, over the “very rapid development cycles” of its Russian and Chinese competitors in the aviation field, that the Air Force told Lockheed Martin at a tech conference earlier this year, “Change or be changed,” Air Force Magazine reported.
Faced with mounting delays delays in F-22 modernization efforts that threatened the fighter’s dominance over its competitors, the Air Force decided to reform the way it rolls out updates to the Raptor, the report said. In other words, the rule book has been ripped up, and the Pentagon wants results, not delays.
Instead of a conventional approach, in which requirements are documented in detail and the update is not delivered until every element is complete, USAF wanted to introduce new capabilities on a rolling basis using an approach known as “agile” development.
“In order for us to maintain our competitive advantage, our air superiority, we knew that we needed to do business differently … to move more quickly,” said Lt. Col. Christina Rusnock, materiel leader for the F-22 modernization program office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.