After the development of Y-20 and J-20, the next military major aviation project in China is the rumoured H-20 bomber project. Although we do not know the exact designation, PLAAF’s top officer, General Ma Xiatian, recently announced that China is developing a next generation, long-range bomber, which will be seen in near future. Just from his statement, I think it’s fair to say that the project is in advanced development. Since H-20 is a strategic platform, it would have even higher level of secrecy than J-20. Speculations over this next generation bomber project have already replaced J-20 and the fate of J-31 as the hottest subject on Chinese military boards. I remember back in 2009, a similar statement was said about J-20. The PLAAF officer said that the next generation fighter jet is expected to go into service in 8 to 10 years. We saw pictures of the first prototype less than 2 years later. And now, it appears that J-20 project will go into service in 2017, just 8 years after the original statement. From this, we can see that when a top level PLAAF officer makes a statement about a major strategic platform, it will usually be quite on the mark. From that, I would expect the first prototype to be built sometimes next year and make maiden flight in 2018. That also seems to be when our friend Huitong thinks the maiden flight will be.
From what I read on Huitong’s blog and other sources, it seems like 603 Institute/XAC will be the primary developer of this project. That would make a lot of sense given their work in the JH-7 series of fighter-bomber and H-6 series of bombers. With the completion of the primary development work for the Y-20 project, additional engineering resources are now available to really speed up H-20 development. Unfortunately, the “wall climbing” community isn’t as active in Xi’an as it is in Chengdu, so we might not see photos coming out as soon as in J-20. At the same time, H-20 should be considered a more classified project than J-20, so we would likely have fewer pictures and info on it than J-20. One only has to think about the classified nature of F-117 and B-2 compared to F-22/35 to imagine how secretive H-20 should be.
The next part is to look at what China has for attack and bomber project right now. China has operated H-6 bombers since first importing Tu-16 technology from Russia back in the 60s. Over time, XAC improved on the avionics and missiles carried by H-6 to develop various improved models fro PLAAF and PLANAF. When they got access to Spey engine, they also experimented installing it H-6 (but did not adopt it). More recently, XAC worked on the H-6K project, which made its maiden flight in 2007. H-6K was delayed due to engine issues, but resumed production in 2009 after they got D-30KP2 from Russia. Since they purchased large quantity of D-30, they have been able to produce about 1 regiment of H-6K (about 20 bombers) every 2 years. H-6K is a large improvement over earlier H-6 in range with payload. It can carry 6 KD-20s for long-range strike and have participated in numerous exercises. Most recently, it crossed Baishi channel in an exercise with Su-30s, early warning aircraft and refueling tankers. Even with all of this improvement, H-6K still pales in comparison to Tu-95MS and B-52 in range and payload. With the KD-20 missiles, H-6K can serve the role of missile carriers/bomb truck, but is not capable of longer ranged missions. Back in 2005, there were speculations that China was interested in Tu-22M3 backfire bombers, but that never happened. I think China was interested in bombers of that quality, but not used frames incapable of launching Chinese missiles. There were speculations a while back that China would develop a domestic version of backfire called H-18. However, that turned out to be a hoax. At this point, I think China would be interested in Tu-160 bomber, but Russia is probably not willing to sell such a strategic platform. For the past 5 years, we have seen induction of 3 H-6K regiments and many new types of missiles and bombers. H-6Ks have been installed with numerous types of electronics. I think the H-6K program serves as a good test bed for missiles and avionics that PLAAF would like to install on the next generation bomber. Once H-20 does join service, H-6K could still serve a role of bomb truck and EW aircraft.
So what would a H-20 bomber look like? The PLA’s definition of a long-range strategic bomber is a minimum range of 8,000 km (5,000 miles) without refueling and the capacity to carry a payload of more than 10 tons of air-to-ground ammunition. Considering that PLAAF it looking for such a bomber and has chosen to not develop its version of backfire, they are clearly looking for something more advanced than Tu-22M3. It would be a tremendous leap to go from H-6K to Tu-160 or B-1 bomber. Huitong’s blog indicated that China is looking for an even more advanced flying wing design akin to the B-2 bomber. If XAC is looking to develop something close to the capability of B-2, the leap from H-6K would be larger than any project in the history of Chinese military aviation (with only J-10 project as comparable). Fortunately, China already has tested out many elements needed for a modern bomber. First of all, it finally has a modern turbofan engine needed for such a bomber. B-1 bomber uses F-101, which was developed into F-110 used on F-15/16s. B-2 bomber uses F-118, which is a non-afterburning turbofan engine developed from F-110. So depending on whether XAC is looking for a supersonic bomber, they could either go with a variant of WS-10 with or without afterburner. In the future, they could also try a version of WS-15. In terms of sensors, they have already tested out various ground scanning radar, AESA radar, EW suites, FLIR/EO turret and laser designator on J-20 and H-6K. I certainly think they can develop some very capable for H-20. In terms of weaponry, stand off missiles, anti-radiation missiles and precision guided missiles have already been developed and in service with various attack aircraft. The big question is whether or not they have the stealth technology, advanced light materials, battlefield surveillance technology and FBW software needed to have a modern long-range LO signature bomber. The 601 Institute and Hongdu have been testing some of the technology since 2013 with the Sharp Sword UCAV, so it can share the data from testing with XAC. However, in order to scale that data up to something the size of a strategic bomber with 4 large turbofan engines, XAC has a lot of work ahead.