A new Pentagon report highlights the strides Beijing is making with its bomber capabilities, as well as other airpower trends.
In its annual report to congress about military developments in China, the US Department of Defense highlights the capabilities of the Xian H-6K bomber. It dedicates a whole chapter to Beijing’s ratcheting up of long-range bomber patrols.
“Over the last three years, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] has rapidly expanded its overwater bomber operating areas, gaining experience in critical maritime regions and likely training for strikes against U.S. and allied targets,” says the report.
“The PLA may continue to extend its operations beyond the first island chain, demonstrating the capability to strike U.S. and allied forces and military bases in the western Pacific Ocean, including Guam.”
It notes the H-6K, which has more range and endurance than the H-6G, can carry six land attack cruise missiles that offer an “offensive strike capability against Guam.”
It adds that future H-6 missions could target Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province.
“Depending on the weapons load, potential future H-6 missions could include anti-ship or shorter-range strikes targeting eastern Taiwan from all directions or supporting a blockade,” says the report. “Currently, such missions are vulnerable without defense counter-air support provided by fighters traveling along the route with the bombers.”
It lists 22 long-range bomber patrols from September 2013 to December 2017, mostly over the Western Pacific. Some have included fighters, airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft, and air-to-air refuelling.
Longer term, the report notes that China is developing a stealth bomber that is likely to be designated H-20. This aircraft could make its debut in the mid-2020s. It is likely to have an 8,500km (4,600nm) range, and a payload of 10t.
“A photograph of a possible H-20 prototype depicted a flying wing airframe akin to the [Northrop Grumman] B-2 bomber and X-47B stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV),” it says.
In addition, a separate air-refuellable bomber could reach initial operational capability before the H-20.
The report notes that Beijing continues to deploy the Y-20 strategic airlifter, more advanced fighter aircraft, such as the Chengdu J-20, and improve AEW&C assets.
It also notes challenges. These include Beijing’s well-publicised weakness in building advanced aircraft engines, as well as trouble with radars. The report says that both of these are problems for the J-20 and AVIC FC-31 programmes.
“The PLAAF continues to modernize and is closing the gap with the U.S. Air Force across a broad spectrum of capabilities, gradually eroding the United States’ longstanding significant technical advantage.”