China recently confirmed the existence of the Xian H-20, its first-ever long-range strategic stealth bomber. The new warbird is getting a lot of headlines being the world’s second bomber of the type, second only to the United States B-2 stealth bomber. But how did China get this technology in the first place?
Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
In 2014, a Chinese-backed cyberattack stole over 630,000 documents from US companies, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Such files contained several blueprints on the F-22 and F-35 programs. Moreover, in 2005, Noshir Gowadia was arrested for selling classified stealth technology to China. Gowadia, an engineer in Northrop Grumman, was also the chief designer of the American B-2.
Fast forward to 2016, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force publicly announced that China had been developing a new generation of long-range bombers that would enter production within the next decade. The planned aircraft would contain fifth-generation stealth technologies, a range of at least 5,280 miles, a 10-metric-ton payload capacity, and the ability to deploy both conventional and nuclear munitions.
The H-20’s operational range of 5,280 miles (without refueling) would allow the aircraft to stealthily strike any land targets in Europe, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Guam. But current estimates put the range at 6,200 miles, just 500 miles shorter than the B-2.
With this estimate, the H-20 could theoretically strike Hawaii and the east coast of America.
Types of Ammunitions
If its stealthiness is able to match the B-2, then it should also be able to use the same type of ordnance. The FT-PGB is a copycat version of the JDAM created in 2006. These bombs are a family of Chinese-built precision-guided munitions that range from 220 lbs to 1,100 lbs. Its F-12 variant has a rocket booster that can be attached to extend its range to 100 mi with a velocity of 370 to 620 mph.
Furthermore, China possesses four operational nuclear-capable cruise missiles that could be loaded into an internal rotary launcher. China’s HN-2 and HN-3 subsonic, low-observable cruise missiles have a range of 870 to 1,900 mi. However, their estimated range can be further extended through Forward Operating Locations (FOLs).
How Stealthy Are They?
For this, we should take a look at China’s J-20. While it has a relatively small RCS (~ half a square meter to three square meters), the American F-22 and F-35 still boast a 0.0001 sqm and 0.0015 sqm cross-section, respectively. Meanwhile, the B-2 has the same RCS as the F-22 because of its flying wing design, even though it has a 172-ft wingspan.
With those numbers in mind, the H-20’s RCS is estimated to be on the lower end of the J-20. This could allow the H-20 to pass through long-range early detection radars but not higher-band defense radars. As such, we can deduce that the H-20 is nowhere near the American B-21 or the B-2 in terms of range and stealth capabilities.
Some of the clearest ideas we have as to what the H-20 would look like comes in the form of a desk decoration gifted to two Chinese pilots in August 2022. The decoration shows two distinct vertical stabilizers, confirming what the earlier reports have said.
If the reports are accurate, then it is expected that the stabilizers can be retracted back into the fuselage but are extended if the pilot warrants more maneuverability.
In July 2022, Chinese state media suggested that the H-20 was close to taking its maiden flight and could be operational in a few years.