U.S. Wary of China’s Next-Generation Stealth Bomber As Development of H-20 Reaches Final Stage

This image taken from a 2018 video released by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, Ltd., which is developing the H-20 stealth bomber, shows an object covered in a blanket that is believed to be the Chinese military’s next-generation bomber.

BEIJING / WASHINGTON — The Chinese military’s new stealth bomber, the H-20, appears to be in the final stage of its development. A next-generation strategic bomber, it is expected to significantly improve China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy aimed at deterring U.S. military action in the event of a contingency involving Taiwan.

The United States has been increasingly alarmed, as the H-20 could have capabilities close to those of U.S. bombers.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed strong concern over the modernization of the Chinese military at a ceremony in Hawaii on Friday to mark the change of the leadership of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is the only country with both the will — and, increasingly, the capacity — to dominate the Indo-Pacific and to reshape the global order to suit its autocratic vision. And that’s why the PRC remains the department’s pacing challenge,” Austin said.

The H-20, in particular, could be a game changer. China is believed to have been developing the strategic bomber on its own. According to an annual report released by the U.S. Defense Department in October last year, the H-20 will be able to fly more than 10,000 kilometers without aerial refueling.

The report states that the H-20 has been deemed capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear munitions, and to have stealth capability that will make it difficult to be detected by an enemy. The bomber will have a flight range covering the second island chain, which connects the Izu Islands to Guam and other areas, as well as the western region of the Pacific. Furthermore, that range “could be extended to cover the globe with aerial refueling,” the report says.

China’s current mainstay H-6 bomber is based on a former Soviet bomber, and its range is short of 10,000 kilometers, unless it is a type that can be refueled in the air. The H-6 is said to be capable of striking as far as the U.S. military base in Guam, but its lack of stealth capability makes it likely to be caught in the air defenses of Japan and the United States.

Since China announced in 2016 plans to develop the H-20, progress on creating the bomber had long been hidden. However, Wang Wei, deputy commander of the Chinese Air Force, told the Hong Kong Commercial Daily in March this year that an official announcement on the H-20 “is coming soon. Just wait!” The remark brought renewed attention to the H-20.

China’s A2/AD strategy is aimed to prevent U.S. forces from entering the first island chain that connects the Nansei Islands and the Philippines and block U.S. military maneuvers inside the second island chain, which is located farther to the east.

Because the H-20 can use its stealth capability to slip through the air defense network and approach a target, the Chinese military is expected to increase the success rate of its attacks.

The H-20 will “undermine the advantage held by the United States and Japan and improve [China’s] A2/AD ability to prevent U.S. military intervention in event of a Taiwan emergency,” said Junichi Araki, a former lieutenant general of the Air Self-Defense Force who has served in such positions as commander of the Southwestern Composite Air Division.

While the Chinese military develops equipment at a rapid pace, it is said to lack experience in full-scale actual combat. To overcome this weakness, it has actively conducted joint training with Russia, which has a wealth of combat experience. Since July 2019, China and Russia have begun joint flights of bombers in the vicinity of Japan.

China is believed to be seeking to enhance its ability to operate bombers by boosting cooperation with Russia in order to counter Japan and the United States.

3 pillars of China’s nuclear force

The Yomiuri Shimbun

At the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the need to strengthen his nation’s nuclear capabilities and expressed the intention to build a powerful strategic deterrence system. China has regarded nuclear-capable bombers, ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) as the three pillars of its strategic nuclear forces.

China’s ICBMs have a range that reaches the continental United States. China is developing the DF-41, an ICBM believed to be capable of carrying up to 10 warheads with a range of about 11,200 kilometers. It is also reportedly building an underground storage facility for ICBMs.

Regarding the SLBM field, China’s strategic nuclear submarines are currently equipped with the JL-2 with a range of about 7,200 kilometers. Some observers believe that deployment of the JL-3, with a range of about 12,000 kilometers that covers the entire U.S. mainland, has also been progressing.

In addition to the land and sea, the H-20 will further strengthen China’s nuclear capabilities in the air. For the Xi administration, which has vowed to build a world-class military, the strategic bomber is meant to highlight the country’s advanced technology.