Video Above: What Role Would 5th Generation Stealthy Fighter Jets Play in a War with China?
The People’s Liberation Army - Air Force recently flew its newest variant of its large, non-stealthy H-6K bomber over Taiwan in an effort to demonstrate resolve, lethality and readiness to attack.
However, there may be interesting questions about the extent to which large Chinese H-6 bombers would actually pose a serious risk given their potential vulnerability to air defenses, surface ships and of course Taiwanese and allied aircraft.
The PLA-AF would need to have established air superiority in order for the H-6J to fly low altitude mine laying or precision bombing missions, something which would not be at all assured in any kind of great power confrontation.
The US and its allies may or may not have advanced air defenses in the South China Sea, however there are established systems in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. A bomber such as the H-6J would be extremely vulnerable to ship-launched US Navy 5th generation aircraft and easily seen by drones and networked ground surveillance systems.
An aircraft as large as the H-6J could also be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire coming from surface ships, depending upon how low it was flying to lay mines in littoral areas.
The real added value when it comes to the functional impact of a large, B-52-like heavy bomber would more likely be in its standoff weapons such as extremely high altitude precision bombs or the use of long-range precision cruise missiles able to be effective at stand-off ranges.
Otherwise, precision bombing missions would need to come from an undetected, high-altitude stealth bomber such as China’s new H-20 or be executed by fighter jets during or after a war to establish air supremacy. Should the US operate amphibs and carriers in the region in any measurable capacity, sea-launched 5th-generation aircraft such as the F-35B and F-35C would likely make it extremely difficult for large Chinese bombers to operate with any measure of success.
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While waiting for large numbers of its emerging H-20 bomber to arrive, China has been consistently upgrading its legacy Xian H-6 bomber to a degree that continues to generate U.S. concern or at least merit considerable attention.
The H-6, which can be traced as far back as to the Cold War era Tu-16 strategic heavy bomber, is mentioned thirty-three times in the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power report, according to a report from Flightglobal.
The report says the H-6 will likely fly into the 2030s, by virtue of an ongoing series of significant upgrades. Newer K, J, and N variants of the aircraft are powered by two more efficient Soloviev D-30 turbofan engines.
Adding to U.S. concerns is China’s new H-20 bomber expected to fly alongside and ultimately replace the H-6. However, part of why the H-6 continues to be extended relates to the time it may take to produce and deploy the H-20 in sufficient numbers.
B-2 and B-21 Bombers
This kind of phased pattern does, to some extent, resemble the U.S. plans with the B-2 and B-21 bombers. The thirty-year old B-2 is expected to fly for many more years until sufficient numbers of the B-21 arrive.
Therefore, in a manner not totally unlike China’s H-6 efforts, the B-2 continues to be upgraded with new weapons, sensors and computer technology to propel the aircraft into future years. The B-2 bomber, for instance, is receivng advanced new Defensive Managment System sensors designed to locate and help aircraft elude enemy air defenses. The 30-year old stealth bomber is also receing a new 1,000-fold faster computer processor and upgraded variants of the B-61 Mod 12 nuclear bomb.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.