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A Bulgarian newspaper says the People’s Liberation Army - Air Force is preparing its new stealthy Xian H-20 bomber for its first flight. The essay, from July of 2022, cites Chinese officials saying the aircraft will soon be “revealed.” It is a much anticipated, next-generation stealthy B-2 or B-21-like platform slated to become operational this year or next year.
Xian H-20 Bomber
While certainly the configuration and performance parameters of the H-20 are likely to be of great interest to the Pentagon, there have not been many images, renderings or actual “appearances” of the aircraft in advanced stages of development close to operational status.
Interestingly, although much is still not known about the platform, its existence was cited in the Pentagon’s 2018 and 2019 annual “China Military Power Report.” The 2019 report specifies that the new H-20 will likely have a range of “at least 8,500km” and “employ both conventional and nuclear weaponry.”
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Interestingly, the image shown in the Bulgarian military report shows angled “wingtips” as opposed to a sleek, flat, straight wing like that used by the B-2 and B-21. An angled “upward” structure seeming to protrude a little seems a bit less stealthy than a straight wing as it would be more likely to generate a return “ping” or radar signature to enemy air defenses. Whereas, a blended-wing-body type of fuselage, without upward protruding wing-tips or tails is designed to appear like “bird” to enemy radar by virtue of not generating a sufficient “rendering’ or return signal to enemy radar. At the same time, the picture of the H-20 does seem to show that the wing-tips are “foldable,” meaning they can straighten. This might make then stealthier but could introduce a detectable “seam” or “break” in what might need to be a smooth exterior.
The H-20 does, however, have a flattened or blended wing-body structure which actually looks a little more horizontal than a B-2. It appears this may at least in part be due to the fact that the engine “inlets” are build into the front of the wing-body structure itself and not on top of the fuselage as they are in a B-2. Does this make it a bit stealthier? May be hard to say, because the B-2 and especially the B-21 according to pictures have very “rounded” or “blended” engine inlets making for a very stealthy surface.
Perhaps the best measure of anticipated performance success or any ability to rival the B-21 may remain unknown, as it likely depends upon the effectiveness of radar absorbent materials and thermal management intended to reduce the heat signature. Most of all, even apart from its relative “stealthiness,” what kinds of sensing, computing, missions systems, weapons and fire control does it have? Should it be unable to rival US equivalents in those capacities, its stealth properties would be less impactful.
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
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 receiving advanced new Defensive Management System sensors designed to locate and help aircraft elude enemy air defenses. The 30-year old stealth bomber is also receiving 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.