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Is China’s Stealth Bomber Due to Make an Appearance Soon?

The Xian H-20 has people talking again. Will it show up in November this year?

Robert Farley
Is China’s Stealth Bomber Due to Make an Appearance Soon?
Credit: Flickr/ Jamie Davies

Is the Xian H-20 stealth bomber set to make its first public appearance in November? Reports from several outlets indicate yes, and the timeline of the bomber’s development would seem to make the appearance plausible.

The H-20 is a large, subsonic stealth bomber similar in form and appearance to the B-2 Spirit, as well as the projected Russian PAK DA and the B-21 Raider. It will reportedly have an advanced electronics suite similar to that expected on the Raider, and a combat radius that would put U.S. bases in Hawaii and Australia at risk. Specifics of range, payload, and speed remain unknown, but would probably not vary significantly from those of other aircraft in its class.

The H-20 will be the first dedicated strategic bomber developed solely by China. Previously, the PLAAF and the PLAN relied to the Xian H-6 bomber, itself a derivative of the Soviet Tupolev-16. The H-6 has, over the years, been tasked with the same missions as most other strategic bombers, including recon, conventional strike, nuclear strike, and naval interdiction. Given the lifespans of modern bombers, reliance on an old design is hardly unusual; the U.S. continues to fly B-52s, while Russia flies Tu-95s, both of which were designed around the same time as the H-6. Indeed, most analysts expect the H-6 to remain in service even after the H-20 become operational.

The expectation that bombers will contribute to naval operations has increased worldwide, although generally air forces have allocated this mission to older, conventionally shaped bombers rather than newer stealth aircraft. The H-20, using both long and short-ranged weapons, could contribute to China’s anti-access system of systems by extending its range, lethality, and penetration capabilities. Putting US staging areas, such as Pearl Harbor, at risk of strike would complicate U.S. operational and force planning across the Pacific.

The first appearance of the H-20 does not imply that it will enter service anytime soon. The first public flight of the B-2 came eight years before initial service, and the J-20 stealth fighter had its first flight six years before entering regular service. Moreover, the introduction of the H-20 is not obviously a response to any particular U.S. action. Still, given the increasing political tensions between China and the United States, including the very public demonstration flight of two B-1Bs near Taiwan earlier this week, it makes sense for the PLAAF to make obvious its own contribution to China’s long-range strategic defense.