The Chinese are highlighting their new H-20 bomber in promotional advertisements, showing a covered airframe in a deliberate effort to raise speculation and mystery surrounding its emerging stealth platform. But will it arrive this year?
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has announced plans to unveil the new aircraft in 2021, so many eyes await. To the extent that a shape could be observed beneath the tarp in the promotional video, a report in the Chinese-government backed Global Times said the images showed an aircraft with “not visible tail wing and two intakes in the back of the plane.”
The promotional PLA Air Force recruitment video for the H-20, which aired earlier this year, was timed to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of the first flight of the stealthy J-20 Chinese fighter jet. Both the J-20 and the emerging H-20 are built by the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, which produced the video.
Details about timing and progress related to the H-20 were not discussed in the Chinese report, which did say the program was deliberately secretive about its status.
Coming months will shed light on several key topics still shrouded in mystery, such as the size, shape, configuration of the new bomber. Even more uncertain is the measure to which the H-20 integrates new generations of sensing, thermal signature management, computer processing and weapons applications.
Also, how many will China produce? This may be quite significant to U.S. weapons planners and threat assessment experts, as the U.S. Air Force is planning to acquire large numbers of B-21s, possibly as many as 150 or more. The B-21 program is progressing very well and generating both praise and enthusiasm, so perhaps plans to potentially accelerate production or increase the total number of aircraft are in large measure prompted by an anticipated threat presented by the Chinese H-20?
While questions about which weapons it may carry are certainly of great significance, the ultimate measure of the aircraft’s success more likely lies in the effectiveness of its stealth properties. Chinese reports have been clear that the H-20 will be a nuclear platform, and perhaps it will fire a long-range cruise missile somewhat similar to the U.S. Long-Range Standoff weapon which will arm the B-21.
The real test of the H-20 will mostly likely relate to the effectiveness of its stealth properties. Simply put, if the aircraft succeeds with the expected mission scope of a bomber of this kind, it will be able to enter enemy airspace, find targets and attack without an attacked country ever even knowing something was there. Such is the intent of this kind of stealth application, as it is intended to elude both lower-frequency surveillance radar as well as high-frequency engagement or “targeting” radar. Accomplishing this is increasingly becoming more challenging, in large measure due to the rapid technological progress in the area of air defenses. In fact, the existence of new better networked, longer-range and more sensitive air defense radar may be a large reason why the B-21 reportedly introduces a new generation of stealth technology.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.