The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has traditionally been a defensive military force designed to protect Chinese airspace and territory.
However, under its current offshore defense doctrine strategy, the PLA has moved its horizon far beyond China's national borders and it is beginning to embrace a more global outlook.
Andreas Rupprecht, an aviation expert who focuses on China, wrote in a recent report for The Jamestown Foundation, "China has strengthened its air and naval power projection capabilities dramatically in the past ten years but, in general, the PLAAF has still a defensive composition. A majority of its aircraft are fighters and only a very small percentage are offensive or multirole-capable types."
Rupprecht continued, "Specifically, compared to the other services, the PLAAF still lacks a real ability to project power far from its borders - its strategic airlift, aerial refueling and modern strategic bombers all lag behind in development."
The PLAAF has been very busy inducting growing numbers of indigenously built fourth-and fifth-generation aircraft such as the J-10B/C, J-15, J-16, J-20 and Y-20. However, President Xi Jinping is not satisfied with this level of progress.
Last year Xi ordered the air force to transform into a "powerful people's air force with integrated air and space and offensive and defensive capabilities". This change towards greater offensive capabilities is illustrated by the current pursuit of a new strategic bomber for the PLAAF with long-range strike and a nuclear deterrence capability.
Indeed, according to Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, Xi has been a major force pushing the PLAAF to acquire a modern strategic bomber.
The annual Pentagon report on the PLA explicitly addressed this in the 2017 issue: "The PLAAF continues developing long-range strategic bombers. In September 2016, General Ma Xiaotian announced that China was developing a new generation of long-range bomber, which observers expected to debut sometime around 2025. These new Chinese bombers will have additional capabilities with full-spectrum upgrades over the current bomber fleet, and will employ many fifth-generation technologies in their design."
As stated above, General Ma, commander of the PLAAF, revealed development of this "next-generation, long-range strike bomber" during an interview on 1 September last year.
Additionally, this year's worldwide threat assessment from the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the USA asserted that China is pursuing "two new air-launched ballistic missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload".Unsurprisingly, the Pentagon's report stated China "is developing a strategic bomber that officials expect to have a nuclear mission".
The burden of nuclear deterrence has traditionally fallen on the shoulders of the PLA Rocket Force, and more recently it has been shared by the PLA Navy (PLAN) via its nuclear-capable submarine fleet. The arrival of a new strategic bomber capable of launching nuclear warheads would complete China's credible nuclear triad for the first time.
This is thus a very significant development, turning the air force into a full strategic member of the PLA. A new strategic bomber plays an important role in the PLAAF's attempt to move from quantity to quality.
As the Rocket Force develops new long-range ballistic missiles and the PLAN eyes an even newer generation of nuclear-powered submarines armed with JL-2 ballistic missiles, the air force does not want to be left behind by the other services. As with every other country, individual services must fight for their share of the defense budget.
Michael S. Chase, a RAND senior political scientist andadjunct professor at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, also recently wrote for The Jamestown Foundation. He discussed the bomber, ".[The PLAAF] now appears to have strong incentives to pursue a revitalized nuclear deterrence and strike mission and the associated nuclear capabilities as it modernizes its bomber force.These actions would improve the survivability of China's nuclear force if the bombers were operated in a survivable manner to assure survivability from a short-warning attack by potentially both increasing the number of targets for a potential adversary and allowing the bombers to escape an attack by launching for survival."
Chase added, "They would also offer new strategic signaling options and an additional layer of nuclear strike options in the region beyond what is currently available with China's land- and sea-based strategic missile force."
Many believe the new bomber will carry the nomenclature of H-20, although for now we refer to it as the H-X. Integral technologies so far mentioned in Chinese media include stealth performance, higher payload, longer range, high-capacity data fusion/transmission and enhanced electronic combat capability compared to existing Chinese platforms.
A China Daily report dating from July 2015 said the new bomber carrying a 10-ton bomb payload should be able to strike targets beyond the second island chain (an imaginary line snaking south from Japan and incorporating the Mariana Islands) without any need for aerial refueling.
Indeed, an expected range of around 10,000km would enable it to reach to all of Australia and Hawaii. The ability to carry at least six KD-20 air-launched cruise missiles in an internal bomb bay is likely.
The H-X project likely kicked off in the early 2000s, and China's experience with the J-20, Y-20 and FC-31 will doubtlessly prove invaluable in its development. It is known that the Xi'an Aircraft Industrial Corporation (XAC) is responsible for designing and building the new bomber.
Its wing geometry, S-shaped dorsal engine intakes and exhausts likely benefit from research done on the SharpSword unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). AVIC reported a digital 3-D mock-up for a "major project" in December 2015, likely an oblique reference to the H-X, and to a detailed design/engineering phase. Rupprecht suggested that individual parts for a prototype started construction last year.
Rupprecht asserted, ".Several scaled-down models were built and test-flown so that by 2011 a four-engined flying wing design similar in configuration to the US B-2 or even B-21 was chosen. Concerning other technical details, one can only speculate but the engines are most likely modifiedafterburner-less WS-10A as an interim solution to the WS-15-derivative later."
The expert on Chinese aviation added, "Academic concept papers published after November 2015 indicate that the H-X most likely features engines buried deep within the main wing's structure to further reduce the radar cross signature (how stealthy it is) and twin dorsal S-shaped engine intakes with saw-tooth lips similar to those of the B-2." In November 2015, a Chinese aviation website claimed that the "China Aircraft R&D Center has surmounted the technical problem of the big S-curved intake".
An aerial refueling capability is a must, and it will also have an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar with conformal antennas. Furthermore, it will be able to serve as a command-and-control node for other platforms such as UAVs and airborne early warning aircraft.
Will the H-X be supersonic or subsonic? If the former, the bomber will have a large payload capacity with the focus on speed rather than stealth, as per the American B-1B Lancer. If the latter, it will be more like the B-2 Spirit that seeks invisibility to penetrate enemy air defenses. The B-2's flight range is 11,000km without air-to-air refueling, giving it a global reach. China will want something of similar range.
Kanwa pondered, "So, how to reconcile between supersonic speed and stealth capability is the biggest conundrum for Russia and China in the development of next-generation strategic bombers."
The technical challenges are not to be minimized, and Kanwa noted that "engines are the biggest barrier of all," especially because China will need a domestically designed turbojet.Kanwa named the WS-18 engine as a candidate, this based on the D30-KP-2 from Russia, and which first flew on a testbed in late 2014. However, Kanwa predicted it will take 5-10 years for the engine to reach the production phase.
That being so, the bomber prototype will probably use Russian D-30-KP-2 engines without afterburner thrust in the interim. This choice will prevent supersonic speeds. Furthermore, Moscow is highly unlikely to sell afterburner turbojet engines because it does not want to supply overtly strategic weapons to China.
The next question is when the new bomber will enter service. More frequent mentions of the bomber in Chinese media may indicate that some kind of formal unveiling will occur in the near future, according to Rupprecht. He also reported that Chinese commentators are expecting a maiden flight within two years. Based on the development period of the XAC Y-20transport aircraft, he predicted the first prototype could fly in early 2020.
Kanwa assessed last year that it would take at least 15 years before the new bomber enters PLAAF service, perhaps around 2030, although it could be slightly earlier. "From a technological perspective, Kanwa concludes that the total take-off weight and flight speed of China's new strategic bomber currently under development are lower than those of the Tu-160/B-1B. It is likely a medium-size bomber slightly larger than the Tu-22M3," the latter a successful Soviet design from the 1970s.
As quoted earlier, the Pentagon report speculated the H-X could debut in about 2025. No matter when it enters service, the H-X will represent a huge step up for the PLAAF.
The air force's most advanced bomber is currently the H-6K. The Pentagon assessed, "China also continues to upgrade its older H-6 bomber fleet to increase operational effectiveness by integrating standoff weapons. The H-6K is a redesign of an older model with turbofan engines to extend range and the capability to carry six [KD-20] land-attack cruise missiles, giving the PLA a long-range standoff precision strike capability that can reach Guam."
Although there is some debate over whether the PLAAF can already deliver nuclear weapons, the Pentagon's annual report said the force "does not currently have a nuclear mission".
Lumbering H-6 bombers, a Chinese copy of the Soviet-era Tu-16 from the 1950s, are not an ideal delivery platform for nuclear weapons since they would find it very difficult to penetrate enemy air defenses. Nevertheless, the H-6K's range of about 5,000km is sufficient to cover the South China Sea, the second island chain, Guam, Japan and northern Australia.
The H-6K has regularly flown over the East and South China seas. Kanwa noted, "If loaded with cruise missiles, it can launch attacks from within China upon more than half of Japan, India, Siberia and targets in central Asia. However, the H-6K can hardly fly beyond the Chinese border to attack more remote targets, which is the task of new-type strategic bombers."
There are currently three bomber divisions (8th, 10th and 36th) containing six regiments in the PLAAF. Rupprecht believes older H-6 bombers need urgent replacement, and even the newer H-6Ks will likely need to be replaced within "5-8 years".
Chase listed downsides if the PLAAF moves into the nuclear delivery game. "One of these could be the risk of embarrassment or other more severe consequences resulting from any potential error related to nuclear weapons storage, handling, transportation or security, areas in which it would need to develop and refine capabilities it presumably has not maintained for many years. Also, the costs of assuring the physical security and operational reliability of the nuclear weapons could be considerable."
As well as impacting US military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region, a nuclear-capable PLAAF has implications for regional powers like Russia, India and Japan. The prospect of stealthy H-20 bombers carrying nuclear-tipped missiles flying near their national airspace is a very big deal, and it could begin to call into question China's long-held "no first use"nuclear posture.
Rupprecht concurred, "When the aircraft is completed, and is able to enter service in the mid-to-late 2020s, the PLAAF will indeed reach its goal of becoming a true "strategic force", and be able to accomplish China's strategic ambitions by acting as nuclear deterrent, being part of the triad, and to provide more effective strike options in order to challenge the dominance of the US forces within the disputed South China Sea and in the Pacific region."
The future H-X is thus a critical element in the PLAAF's mission of becoming a more strategic service possessing theability to project power, indeed even nuclear weapons, far from China's shores. It will be a game-changer for the PLAAF.