China Teases New Bomber, But Timing Remains Unclear
A new combat aircraft with “strategic and historical” significance to the Chinese military was close to an important flight-test event in July.
The Global Times, a daily newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party, quoted Ge Heping, the political commissar of the Chinese Flight Test Establishment, as urging his staff to work harder to achieve the milestone test. The identity of the new aircraft has not been confirmed.
Beijing has made a number of advances in the last two decades on the combat aircraft front. Nearly a dozen years ago, the first Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter broke cover during high-speed taxi tests. The first images of the Xian Y-20 airlifter emerged a decade ago, and the first flight of the Harbin Z-20 utility helicopter took place more than nine years ago.
- Timing of H-20 program still a mystery
- Zhuhai event to feature Tiangong space station replica
As the 14th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, also known as Airshow China 2022, prepares to open in Zhuhai on Nov. 8, the status of the fourth, final and possibly most interesting of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) “20-series” military aircraft remains unknown: the Xian H-20 stealth bomber.
Speculation about the timing of a public debut for the long-range strategic bomber has been circulating for years. A meeting of Chinese military leaders concluded in 2015 that the PLAAF needs such an aircraft. In 2016, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the then-PLAAF commander, publicly confirmed that China was developing a new bomber. Avic, the manufacturer, teased the program’s imminent debut at the end of a May 2018 promotional video. The U.S. military has acknowledged the program’s existence, saying in a 2020 report to Congress that the “advanced bomber” may not enter service for a decade.
The scheduled rollout of the North-rop Grumman B-21 Raider in December comes a month after Airshow China, giving the PLAAF and Avic a public stage on which to steal the spotlight from the U.S. Air Force’s new stealth bomber.
But there is scant evidence that the Chinese plan to seize the opportunity. Despite Ge’s comments suggesting an imminent first flight of something in July, no confirmation from any program, including the H-20, has appeared in the intervening time.
The press conference prior to Airshow China in Zhuhai on Sept. 27 prompted another wave of speculation. A Chinese journalist asked the PLAAF spokesman, Senior Col. Shen Jinke, about whether a new member of the “20-series” aircraft family could appear in the static display. Shen replied that the PLAAF would display new achievements in “long-range strategic delivery,” along with equipment the audience “has never seen before,” the Global Times reported.
A new bomber qualifies as a long-range aircraft capable of “strategic delivery,” but there are other options. Shen’s comments also could be interpreted as referring to the Xian Y-20U, a refueling variant of the indigenous airlifter that might support the H-20 bomber on long-range missions. Chinese state media “unveiled” the Y-20U in July, showing the tanker refueling fighters during predeployment training. The aircraft made a public debut in late August at the Changchun Airshow in northeast China.
An air show also is an unlikely venue for a public unveiling. Some aircraft, such as the Y-20, appeared at Zhuhai within two years of first visual evidence of the program’s existence. But most Chinese military aircraft are revealed in photographs long before they appear at an air show.
For example, the J-20 first appeared at Zhuhai in 2016, which came nearly five years after the twin-engine fighter entered flight testing. The PL-15 missile was officially unveiled at Zhuhai in 2018, which also came five years after the first photographs of the long-range air-to-air weapon appeared. Last year, China showed off the Shenyang J-16D for the first time. The 2021 Zhuhai event had been delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but if the show had been held as scheduled, the electronic warfare aircraft also would have made its debut five years after its first flight.
Instead, the event is expected to reveal progress across China’s aviation and space industry. The Chinese government has confirmed it will display a full-scale replica of the roughly 100-ton Tiangong Space Station for the first time.
Future Chinese Military Aircraft
H-20 Strategic Bomber
Official U.S. sources expect a stealthy, flying-wing, subsonic bomber to become operational by the end of this decade. Avic, the manufacturer, has said the project was officially launched in 2008, but concept development activity likely began in the 1990s. In November 2016, then-PLAAF commander, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, officially confirmed the existence of the program, saying a long-range bomber was in development. Since then, Avic has teased the shape of the aircraft in brochures and advertisements, with a veil shrouding an aircraft shaped generally like a Northrop Grumman B-2. The aircraft’s actual shape has not been released.
JH-XX Tactical Bomber
This is a long-rumored concept for a possibly stealthy, supersonic medium bomber to complement the Xian H-20. Although never officially confirmed, images of unidentified concepts sometimes linked to the JH-XX have appeared since 2011. A “fighter-bomber” developmental project appeared in the 2019 China Military Power report published by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. The report described the bomber as having an active, electronically scanned array radar; long-range air-to-air missiles; and precision-guided munitions, but it lacked sources or citations.
J-?? Next-Generation Fighter
A sixth-generation fighter will enter service by 2035 or earlier, said Wang Haifeng, chief designer at Chengdu Aircraft Research and Design Institute, in January 2019 interview with the Xian-based journal Ordnance Industry Science Technology. Such an aircraft may have improved stealth, adaptive engines, laser weapons and hypersonic missiles, Wang added. Although some analysts believe China’s next fighter will replace the lightweight J-10, Yang Wei, chief designer of the Chengdu J-20, has proposed an alternative vision. In an essay published in July 2020 by Acta Aeronautica et Astronautica Sinica, a monthly Chinese journal, Yang wrote that a future fighter jet will generally require greater stealth, endurance, range and weapons load than current aircraft. The next-generation fighter also will collect so much information, Yang said, that artificial intelligence algorithms will be needed to make sense of the data for the pilot.
Y-19/Y-30 Tactical Airlift
Various concepts have appeared of a long-term replacement for the Shaanxi Y-8/Y-9 transport fleet, which is derived from the late-1950s-era Antonov An-12. The Y-19 may be a twin-turboprop replacement based on the proposed WJ-10 engine, according to some sources. Alternatively, Avic showed off a concept at the 2014 Zhuhai Airshow of a four-engine, 130,000-lb. airlifter called the Y-30.