China's secretive new H-20 Stealth Bomber may be revealed at a fall airshow, sources say. The aircraft could tilt the US-China military balance in the region. Credit: Handout.

Military planners will be keeping a close watch on the scheduled Zhuhai Airshow in November — depending on how things go with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Why? It won’t be because they like airshows and the entertainment they offer. No, not quite.

Rather, it’s been rumoured that it is there that China will unveil its mysterious new Xian H-20 stealth bomber, an emerging platform expected to massively extend China’s attack range and present a rival to the US B-2 and emerging B-21.

“The Zhuhai Airshow is expected to become a platform to promote China’s image and its success in pandemic control — telling the outside world that the contagion did not have any big impacts on Chinese defence industry enterprises,” a source told Business Insider.

The H-20 could, of course depending upon its technological configuration, bring a new level of threat to the United States. According to a report in the New Zealand Herald, the new supersonic stealth bomber could “double” China’s strike range.

Scary scenario?

If the H-20 can extend beyond the first island chain, as the New Zealand report maintains, then it can not only hold the Philippines, Japan and areas of the South China Sea at risk, but also threaten Hawaii, Australia and even parts of the continental US, according to a report by Kris Osborn of The National Interest.

Interestingly, although much is still not known about the platform, its existence was cited in the Pentagon’s 2018 and 2019 annual “China Military Power Report.”  

The 2019 report specifies that the new H-20 will likely have a range of “at least 8,500 km” and “employ both conventional and nuclear weaponry.” 

The report cites 2016 public comments from People’s Liberation Army Air Force Commander General Ma Xiaotian announcing the development of the H-20, and saying the weapon could emerge some time in the next decades, National Interest reported.

Well, sure enough, the next decade is here and early renderings appear to parallel some of Xiaotian’s comments about Chinese intentions for the bomber. According to the Pentagon’s China report, the H-20 will “employ 5th generation technologies.”

This claim may remain to be seen to some extent, yet the Chinese have already engineered several potentially fifth-generation aircraft with the J-20 and J-31. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe they have done it on the H-20.

It does appear to be stealthy; it looks like it has an embedded engine, blended wing body, absence of vertical structures and engine air ducts woven into the frame under the fuselage, National Interest reported.

A reported range of 8,500 kilometers appears slightly less than a B-2 bomber’s range of more than 6,700 miles, Pentagon reports have raised concerns that the Chinese may also be developing a refuelable bomber.

Of even greater concern, is that such a refueler could “expand long-range offensive bomber capability beyond the second island chain.”

A refueler could also substantially change the equation and enable it to rival the mission scope of a B-2 which, as many know, successfully completed forty-four-hour missions from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Diego Garcia during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

“The Beijing leadership is still carefully considering whether its commission will affect regional balance, especially as regional tensions have been escalating over the Covid-19 pandemic,” another source told Business Insider.

“Like intercontinental ballistic missiles, all strategic bombers can be used for delivering nuclear weapons … if China claimed it had pursued a national defence policy which is purely defensive in nature, why would it need such an offensive weapon?”

Tensions in the region have worsened in the past month with a war of words between Beijing and Washington over the pandemic, and both sides increasing naval patrols of the Taiwan Strait and South and East China seas.

The H-20 will be equipped with nuclear and conventional missiles with a maximum take-off weight of at least 200 tons and a payload of up to 45 tons. It could also potentially unleash four powerful hypersonic stealth cruise missiles, each capable of destroying major targets.

Some Chinese publications also argue that the H-20 will do double-duty as a networked reconnaissance and command & control platform.

Theoretically, an H-20 could rove ahead, spying the position of opposing sea-based assets using a low-probability-of-intercept AESA radar, and fuse that information to a firing platform hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The H-20 could also be used for electronic warfare or to deploy specialized directed energy.

However, like China’s first active stealth fighter jet, the J-20, engine development of the H-20 bomber has fallen behind schedule, according to sources.

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