While the goal of a stealth bomber is not to be seen – at least on radar – the Chinese military is reportedly weighing how to officially introduce the still-to-be-delivered next-generation warplane. Military experts, who have anticipated the arrival of the long-range aircraft for a while, may have to extend their wait at least until November.
The Xian H-20, which is expected to double the country’s strike range, could make its public debut at this year’s Zhuhai Airshow. But that is only providing the coronavirus pandemic is under control and contained. Should it make a return this autumn, the Xian H-20 could become akin to “Waiting for Godot” where its promised arrival is continually delayed.
“The Zhuhai Airshow is expected to become a platform to promote China’s image and its success in pandemic control – telling the outside world that the contagion did not have any big impacts on Chinese defence industry enterprises:” an unnamed source told the South China Morning Post this week.
The aircraft had been previously teased about in viral marketing campaigns that wouldn’t seem out of place for a Hollywood blockbuster, and Chinese media had teased that the aircraft would be part of a parade to celebrate the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s seventieth anniversary in 2019.
There have also been concerns that if the bomber were to make an appearance at this year’s airshow that it could heighten tensions by directly threatening countries that are within its strike range, notably Japan, South Korea and even Australia, including U.S. bases in those countries as well as in the U.S. territory of Guam.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has estimated that the bomber has a cruising distance of more than 5,300 miles and could fly at subsonic speeds, while carrying four powerful hypersonic stealth cruise missiles.
This has provided Beijing with what has been described as a “nuclear triad” of ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and air-launched weapons. Such a combination of arms has been seen to provide the United States with 24/7 deterrence to prevent catastrophic actions from adversaries, but it could certainly change the power dynamic among China’s regional rivals.
Last year in an annual report to Congress, the DoD warned that China could be inching closer to such a nuclear triad.
“The Beijing leadership is still carefully considering whether its commission will affect regional balance, especially as regional tensions have been escalating over the Covid-19 pandemic,” another unnamed source told the South China Morning Post. “Like intercontinental ballistic missiles, all strategic bombers can be used for delivering nuclear weapons.”
However, as the report to Congress also noted, a true nuclear triad is about more than just possessing the military platforms and weapons.
“To have a true triad involves doctrine, it involves training, a lot of things,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver explained as reported by Business Insider last May. Schriver added that the Chinese military is “heading in that direction, toward having capable delivery systems in those three domains.”
The Xian H-20 certainly provides the third piece of the triad, but the aircraft won’t instantly level the playing field. The speed of the H-20 is reportedly slower than its original design. However, the H-20 could be an answer to the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. If the U.S. and its allies deploy more of the next-generation fighter in the region, China may feel compelled to respond by speeding up its Xian H-20 program in the latest – and increasingly expensive and increasingly dangerous – tit-for-tat in the region.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.