An undated photo shows two Chinese jet fighters during a military drill in the South China Sea. Photo AFP/Stringer
An undated photo shows two Chinese jet fighters during a military drill in the South China Sea. Photo AFP / Stringer

China’s first intercontinental deep strike bomber, the H-20, is apparently nearing its first flight, according to news reports.

The bomber may be armed with conventional, nuclear-tipped or hypersonic stealth cruise missiles, sending a strong new signal to the United States and its Pacific allies in an era of rising geostrategic tensions.  

Publicly available information on the H-20 is scant due to its classified nature. Recent Chinese reports have only mentioned the coming of a specific type of aircraft of strategic and historical significance.

But photos released by China North Industries Corporation, or Norinco, in its Modern Weaponry monthly magazine show that the fighter has a flying wing design, a weapons bay, two adjustable tail wings and a frontal airborne radar

It also has stealth air intakes on both sides and is covered in dark grey radar-absorbent material, according to the same images.

The Warzone notes that the H-20 may have a 4,000 to 5,000-mile combat radius and can carry a wide range of precision-guided weapons such as smart bombs, land-attack cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles.

It will reportedly have a maximum takeoff weight of 200 tons, a payload of 45 tons and fly at high subsonic speeds.

Defense website 1945 notes that China aims to have the H-20 at operational capability by the end of the decade, roughly matching the US’ timeline for its B-21 Raider, the successor to the vaunted B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

Military Watch mentions while the PLA Air Force (PLA-AF) was responsible for most of China’s early nuclear testing, its strategic nuclear deterrent is built around the PLA Rocket Force (PLA-RF) and PLA Navy (PLA-N) using a variety of land and sea-based ballistic missiles.

Although China is one of three countries that operates strategic bombers, along with the US and Russia, its long-range bomber force is notably laggard, as its mainstay Xian H-6 is based on the 1950s Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 bomber, as noted in a 2020 paper by the Hoover Institution think tank.

This month, an unknown aircraft covered in a blanket is seen in a recruitment video released by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force. Photo: Screenshot from the PLA Air Force 2021 recruitment video

The paper notes that while the H-6 is an aging design, it has modern engines with the latest H-6N variant capable of mounting air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) for standoff strike missions.

While Military Watch notes that the H-6N variant can carry nuclear-tipped, air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBM), most US analysts view it as a long-range ship hunter against US carrier battlegroups.

It also notes that the H-6 is considered a theater bomber with a tactical role, which means that without aerial refueling and standoff missiles it cannot strike targets at intercontinental ranges, unlike the US B-52 and B-2 and the Russian Tu-95 and Tu-160.

In September 2020, the PLA Air Force released a video showing an H-6N launching ALCMs at US Naval Base Guam, hinting that such long-range strikes against US forces and facilities in the Pacific may be its primary mission, instead of being a long-range ship hunter as previously thought of by US analysts.

But China’s present air and naval capabilities may be insufficient to support the H-6N in a long-range strike role. A 2019 study by the Center for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) notes that the range limitations of China’s current fighters mean that H-6N bombers are vulnerable to US, Japanese and Taiwanese air defenses before they can get within striking range of Guam.

It also mentions that China does not yet have maritime or carrier battlegroup support for long-range bombers in air defense at the open sea. However, this situation may have changed with the commissioning of the Type 055 cruisers equipped with powerful long-range air defense radars and long-range surface-to-air missiles.

The CLAWS study also notes that China has yet to master stealth technology, and consequently, US bases in the First and Second Island Chains continue to deter China’s long-range bomber flights.

In addition, US bases in South Korea, Japan, Guam and Hawaii may sport long-range air and missile defenses such as the Patriot, Aegis Ashore and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which can threaten China’s H-6N bombers.

The study notes that the PLA Air Force’s most significant capability gap is the lack of a nuclear mission, which the H-20 is designed to perform. It also notes that the US has no established defenses against stealth aircraft, a fact that the H-20 may also seek to exploit.

A 2021 paper published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists notes that the H-20 aims to replace the H-6N and can be equipped with nuclear-tipped ALCMs, completing China’s nuclear triad and increasing its operational flexibility in a contingency scenario.

Apart from completing China’s nuclear triad, the H-20 may perform aerial shows of force against China’s adversaries.

A 2018 study by RAND notes that China has been conducting long-range bomber overflights over the Pacific for four main reasons, with the H-20 enabling China to reliably threaten US targets beyond the First and Second Island Chains and advancing China’s air power projection capabilities.

First, H-20 bomber overflights over disputed maritime areas such as the South China Sea and Senkaku Islands show China’s resolve to defend these territories against potential adversaries such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as it is not clear how these potential regional adversaries can counter a threat such as the H-20.

China’s H-20 could shift the strategic balance in the Pacific. Image: Sputnik

Second, the overflights provide training opportunities for PLA-AF pilots, providing realistic environments in which they may be expected to operate in a conflict scenario with the US. H-20 practice flights may feature tactics, techniques and procedures to exploit gaps in the Pacific region’s US and allied air defenses.

Third, long-range bomber flights with the H-20 can become showpieces of China’s growing military and economic might for domestic audiences, thereby increasing the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party in the eyes of the Chinese people.

Finally, the H-20 may feature in bomber overflights within and around Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) as part of China’s efforts to pressure the Taiwanese leadership to keep in line with China’s interests, dissuade any ideas for independence, and expose Taiwan’s military vulnerability by underscoring the inability of the US to assist in the event of an invasion.