China’s next-generation H-20 bomber is coming, and it’s set to take on the latest offerings from Russia and the United States.
It was revealed in the mid-2010s that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was looking for a new strategic stealth bomber to replace their aging H-6, itself a license-produced variant of the 1950s Soviet Tu-16 heavy bomber. However, this new bomber is being envisioned as more than simply a modernized H-6; rather, it is to serve a broader and fundamentally different strategic purpose.
To understand the PLAAF’s need for a new bomber with greatly enhanced power projection capabilities, consider China’s island chain doctrine. Chinese strategists see the waters to China’s east through three overlapping layers, or “chains.” The first chain encompasses the East and South China seas, wrapping around mainland China’s coast. The second chain stretches roughly from Japan to Micronesia, and the third chain runs from the Aleutian Islands beyond Hawaii. The PLAAF seeks a bomber with the capabilities to project air power beyond the second chain, threatening critical U.S. assets and infrastructure in ways that are either difficult or impossible with the H-6 platform.
This ambitious goal requires a strategic bomber with sufficient range, sophisticated penetration capabilities, and an adequately powerful payload; the H-20 reportedly delivers on all fronts. The H-20’s airframe remains something of a mystery—our only glimpse into its outward design comes from a promotional video posted by the defense outlet China Defense Online. Toward its end, the video showed a brief render of a draped flying wing aircraft that seemingly represents the H-20. The veiled bomber’s contours are broadly reminiscent of Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider bomber; indeed, the entire shot was clearly inspired by Grumman’s famous 2015 Super Bowl ad for the B-21. There was some speculation that the H-20 is powered by a modified version of the WS-10 turbofan engine, but nothing has been confirmed.
The B-21 boasts an operational range of at least 8,500 kilometers, and possibly as much as 12,000 km, potentially almost doubling the baseline H-6’s strike range. As with other next-generation stealth bombers like the B-21 and PAK-DA, it will be designed with an overriding focus on stealth performance. The H-20 will likewise feature a robust electronic countermeasures (ECM) package, as well as data collection and processing capabilities approximating to the F-35’s sensor fusion, sending battlefield information to nearby friendly units. The H-20 will carry a nuclear-capable payload of at least ten tons, with the possible option of up to four hypersonic cruise missiles.
Concrete delivery and production timelines remain elusive. The bomber is expected to enter service sometime in the mid 2020s, but it remains unclear how many models the PLAAF wants, and how quickly. The PLAAF’s recent efforts to procure upgraded H-6 bombers, which are expected to fly into the 2030s, suggest that China’s military is not expecting large H-20 shipments anytime soon.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.