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China is now taking substantial and decided steps forward to solidify the air-leg of a “nuclear triad” with the addition of a nuclear-capable H-6N bomber, according to the Pentagon’s recently released 2021 report on China’s military capability.
China is known to operate road-mobile ICBMs and of course arm its Jin-class submarines with JL-2 and emerging JL-3 nuclear capable missiles, yet it is only in recent years, if not months, that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force has resurrected its airborne leg. This quite simply means that China will operate with an ability to hold targets around the world at risk of nuclear attack from the air as well as from the ground and sea.
PLAAF: Airborne Leg of Nuclear Triad
“In October 2019, the PRC signaled the return of the airborne leg of its nuclear triad after the PLAAF publicly revealed the H-6N as its first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuelable bomber,” the Pentagon report, called “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021,” states. “The H-6N features a modified fuselage that allows it to carry externally an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) that may be nuclear capable.”
Activating a nuclear-capable bomber such as the longstanding H-6N, soon to be joined by the new stealthy now-in-development H-20 bomber, is a key part of a large-scale Chinese nuclear weapons modernization and expansion campaign.
This effort, as detailed by the Pentagon report, is placing the People’s Republic of China on track to have “at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020. This number of warheads will spread across a range of weapons systems to include road-mobile ICBMs with multiple reentry vehicles, submarine-launched nuclear weapons, aircraft and new ground-based ICBMs launched from silos now under construction.
Earlier this year, Adm. Charles Richard, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said that commercial satellite photos reveal ICBM-delivering ground silos under construction in parts of mainland China, a concerning, while not surprising development for Pentagon strategists tracking the PRCs ambitious, large scale nuclear weapons expansion.
“The PRC has commenced building at least three solid-fueled ICBM silo fields, which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos,” the Pentagon report states. An expanded force with new silos may suggest the China is evolving its nuclear weapons readiness posture to a “Launch-on-Warning” position.
Nuclear Capable Air-Launched Ballistic Missile
China is also supporting the air leg of its “nuclear triad” by developing a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile, a weapon which could represent an effort to match the now developing U.S. nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile called the Long Range Stand-Off Weapon (LRSO).
The concept with an air-launched ballistic missile or cruise missile is to add new dimensions to a deterrence strategy by giving commanders a wide range of options with which to hold enemies at risk.
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In this case, a long-range, aircraft-fired nuclear weapon could make a country vulnerable without needing a Stand-In, closer range bomber to operate above targeted territory, likely armed with advanced air defenses. The tactical notion, it seems clear, is to prepare for the widest possible sphere of contingencies.
Perhaps land-based ICBMs are destroyed or overwhelmed? Perhaps submarine-launched nuclear armed missiles are disabled, found or not in a position to strike? Perhaps nuclear-armed aircraft cannot survive stand-in operations in close proximity to air defenses? Should all of these things somehow develop unexpectedly at the same time, what options might remain? This would be where an air-launched, yet long-range nuclear weapon might prove uniquely valuable.
China's H-20 Stealth Bomber
China’s new stealthy H-20 bomber is expected to operate with an ability to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons and fly at ranges out to 8,500 kilometers, a new Pentagon report on China says.
Expected to quite possibly emerge as quickly as next year, the new H-20 seems to represent a Chinese effort to rival the U.S. B-21, however it is of course far from certain that the new platform might in any way be comparable to the U.S. B-21. The Pentagon reports on China’s H-20 have also said that the new H-20 will incorporate a range of 5th-generation technologies typically associated with stealth fighter jets.
Should 5th-generation characteristics, fortified by the use of advanced stealth design techniques, be used in the H-20, they would likely fall within the realm of sensing and
AI-empowered computing. Certainly fighter jets and bombers have very different missions, yet both are of course heavily reliant upon targeting sensors, information processing, advanced software and weapons interfaces. An ability to upgrade as new weapons.
Available renderings of the exterior of the H-20 reveal a stealthy configuration; it looks like the H-20 has an embedded engine, blended wing body, absence of vertical structures and engine air ducts woven into the frame underneath the fuselage. The B-2, by contrast, has air ducts emerging from the top of the fuselage, yet there are nonetheless many visible design similarities between the H-20 and the B-2 or B-21.
Last years’ Pentagon China report said “a possible H-20 prototype depicted a flying wing airframe akin to the B-2 bomber and X-47B stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle. Perhaps of even greater concern, according to the Pentagon assessment, is that refueling capability could “expand long-range H-20 offensive bomber capability beyond the second island chain,” meaning it could hold disputed areas of the South China Sea at risk from the air.
A refueler could also substantially change the equation and enable it to rival the mission scope of a B-2 which successfully completed forty-four-hour missions from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Diego Garcia, a small island off the Indian coast during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Sure enough, this year’s Pentagon China report cites the existence of a first-of-its kind H-6N refuelable bomber variant, something which opens up space for the prospect of a refuelable H-20 able to sustain long-endurance missions spanning across continents. This intercontinental ability may be China’s true ambition for the H-20, as it will enable much more substantial forward-operating power projection for Chinese airpower should it be needed in a great power war.
While an external radar signature-reducing shape might be easy to attempt to copy, as may be the case given how similar the H-20 looks to a U.S. B-2, truly advanced stealth incorporates a wide sphere of technologies to include composite, radar-absorbent materials, heat signature reduction systems such as IR suppressors and exhaust systems and, perhaps most of all, internally buried carefully architected engine technology engineered to operate at much lower temperatures than most aircraft.
One of the key technical goals of stealth is, among other things, to build an aircraft that can, while in flight, approximate the surrounding atmospheric temperature as closely as possible to remove any detectable margin of difference. While many specifics of stealth technology are obviously not available for security reasons, they regularly involve specific methods of managing exhaust fumes or high-temperature air from trailing an aircraft.
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