China is developing two new stealth fighters, stealthy unmanned aircraft, new cruise and ballistic missiles; however, Beijing thus far has not attempted to develop a new bomber. Instead, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force relies on the upgraded Xian H-6K—a derivative of the antiquated Soviet Tu-16 Badger—which is armed with a host of cruise missiles.
But given the size of the Pacific and the ranges both American and Chinese aircraft would have to fly over in the event of a conflict, it would be logical for Beijing to develop a long-range bomber that could strike at some of the more distant U.S. bases or to attack U.S. Navy carriers at sea. Moreover, if U.S. forces struck at the Chinese mainland during a war—perhaps over Taiwan—Beijing would only have two options with which to strike back. One would be nuclear weapons—which would signal the start of World War Three—or non-kinetic cyber-attacks. But it would have to means to strike back with conventional weapons.
There have been persistent rumors that China has tried to purchase the Tu-22M Backfire production line from Russia, but those have usually not panned out. But it would make sense if China had made an attempt to purchase the Backfire line—much of Beijing’s vaunted anti-access/area denial strategy is drawn from the Soviet Union’s plans to cut off Europe from North America if the Cold War ever turned hot. The Soviets, too, envisioned a combination of submarines, ships and bomber-launched cruise missile barrages overwhelming a carrier strike group. Only part of the Chinese version of the strategy that is new is the anti-ship ballistic missile component.
It also lacks a sufficient air-launched cruise missile component. The upgraded H-6K is a serviceable platform, but a newer, more capable bomber would probably be useful to the Chinese. That newer platform could be long-range stealth bomber or even a stand-off long-range cruise missile carrier similar in concept to the Russian Tu-160 Blackjack. But thus far China has not been observed developing a new long-range bomber.
But why is that? The answer is likely propulsion. The Chinese—despite years of work—have not been able to develop a reliable jet engine that is ready for mass production. Earlier this year, the Chinese government admitted that its engine technology is not ready for prime time. China's Defense Ministry told Reuters that there was a "definite gap" between Chinese military technology and some developed countries.
However, China has made jet engine technology development a priority. According to the Shanghai-based Galleon Group aerospace consulting firm—as cited by Reuters—estimates that Beijing will spend $300 billion over the next 20 years on civil and military aircraft engine programs. Indeed, according to various sources, Chinese aerospace firms have hired foreign engineers and former air force personnel to work on engine development—according to Reuters.
That means that it is likely that Beijing will eventually be able to build its own jet engines. Once that happens—we could very well see the emergence of a new Chinese bomber.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.