A new report from the Defense Intelligence Agency indicates that China is working on two distinct stealth bomber programs. The first, well known to observers, is the Xian H-20, a strategic bomber along the lines of the B-2, B-21 or the Russian PAK DA. The second, described as the JH-XX, is a stealth fighter-bomber, which as Stephen Trimble notes has no obvious U.S. analogue. Such an aircraft would likely perform missions similar in scope to those that the United States has assigned the F-35 and other short-range fighter-bombers.
Tyler Rogoway hypothesizes that the PLAAF is looking for a medium bomber capable of striking regional targets without requiring inflight refueling. As Rogoway points out, the United States explored several different options for developing a stealthy medium bomber, but eventually discarded the idea to focus on the B-21 and the F-35.
The former can perform medium range bombing, and the latter can do so with the support of inflight refueling, but a medium bomber would have allowed a somewhat greater degree of latitude with respect to basing. The U.S. retired its medium bomber fleet in favor of short-range fighter-bombers and long-range heavy bombers, in part because it has enjoyed the luxury of plentiful regional bases, secure inflight refueling areas, and uncontested airspace. China cannot depend on those advantages, and the U.S. may not be able to rely on them in the future.
At this point very little is clear about the project. The idea of fighter-bomber with stealth characteristics makes sense; why use a strategic bomber if a smaller aircraft will do? And China clearly has a strategic need for such a bomber. With respect to available aircraft, one option would be to develop a strike oriented variant of the Chengdu J-20. The J-20 is a large aircraft with a long range and stealth characteristics, and it seems more economical to develop a bomber variant than to design an entirely new aircraft. But then the JH-XX is reportedly part of the Shenyang family, and the PLAAF may want to ensure that both of its major producers remain healthy.
China might also be interested in a new carrier-borne strike aircraft. Although the idea of a dedicated carrier-borne attack aircraft has gone out of style, in the Cold War the United States employed several different kinds of attack aircraft, including the A-5 Vigilante, the A-6 Intruder, and the A-7 Corsair. But Rogoway suggests that rumors of the size of the JH-XX suggest a plane of 100’ long and 120000# takeoff weight, which would be extremely difficult to launch from even a very large carrier.
In any case, we can expect details to leak about the program over the next few years; the aviation-watching community in China is large, and well-connected. And we can also look forward to learning more about the Xian H-20 project in the near term, as it appears initial rollout may happen this year.
The views expressed here are his personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the Army War College, or any other department or agency of the U.S. government.