China’s long-range Xian H-20 stealth bomber could make its debut at Zhuhai air show

Beijing ‘carefully considering’ unveiling the H-20 bomber at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2020 at a time of heightened regional tension learned GDC citing South China Morning Post.

The H-20 aircraft will give China the nuclear triad of submarines, ballistic missiles and bombers.

Worsening Relationship With The West Over Coronavirus

China’s new generation strategic bomber is likely to be ready for delivery this year, but Beijing is said to be weighing the impact of its unveiling at a complex time in regional relations due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Australia has joined the US and other nations in calling for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and its links to wet markets in China, triggering an angry response from Beijing.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reiterated his intentions of conducting the investigation. China has warned Australia against continuing its investigative efforts after it published a dossier containing details of its probe into the coronavirus pandemic.

US President Donald Trump has urged other countries to support Australia’s investigation. But China has accused Australia of copying the United States in resolution to conduct research independently from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned China’s intimidation and encouraged US allies to also demand clarity and answers.

An artist’s impression of what the H-20 may look like. Photo: Weibo
Envisioned H-20

Zhuhai Airshow 2020

China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition, also known as Airshow China or Zhuhai Airshow, is the largest airshow in mainland China. It has been held in even years in Zhuhai, Guangdong since 1996. The H-20 could boost China’s image to the foreign buyers who are unable source Western weaponry and keen to procure low cost Chinese alternatives. The Zhuhai Air Show is the greatest opportunity for China to showcase military hardware and bag export contracts from Africa, Middle East, Latin America and Asia.

Military sources said the Xian H-20 supersonic stealth bomber – expected to double the country’s strike range – could make its first public appearance at this year’s Zhuhai Airshow in November 2020, if the pandemic was sufficiently under control.

“The Zhuhai Airshow is expected to become a platform to recapture 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,” a source said.

But the appearance of the bomber at this year’s air show could heighten tensions by directly threatening countries within its strike range, especially Australia, Japan and the Korean peninsula.

“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 source said.

“Like intercontinental ballistic missiles, all strategic bombers can be used for delivering nuclear weapons … if China claimed it had pursued a national defence policy which is purely defensive in nature, why would it need such an offensive weapon?”

Tensions In the Region

Tensions in the region have worsened in the past month with a war of words between Beijing and Washington over the pandemic, and both sides increasing naval patrols of the Taiwan Strait and South and East China seas.

North and South Korea have exchanged gunfire at their border, raising tensions a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended an almost three-week absence from public life.

The Koreas’ demilitarised zone is the world’s most heavily fortified border.(AP: Lee Jin-Man, File Photo)

Multiple gunshots were fired from North Korea towards a guard post in South Korea at 7:41am (local time) on May 01 2020, the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

South Korea responded by firing two shots towards North Korea.

Chinese defence expert Adam Ni, from Sydney’s Macquarie University, told last year the aircraft’s development is aimed to deter Western nations such as the US. “China is making clear progress in acquiring an effective strategic bomber that would enhance its strategic deterrence against its competitors, such as the US,” he said at the time.

Defense Budget

Meanwhile, China’s massive defence budget it expected to be largely unaffected by the pandemic. Last year the defence budget was 1.18 trillion yuan (A$275 billion), up 7.5 per cent from the previous year.

H-20 Bomber

The US defence department has estimated a cruising distance of more than 8,500km (5,300 miles) for the H-20, the last in China’s 20 series of new generation warplanes, which includes the J-20 stealth fighter jet, the Y-20 giant transporter and the Z-20 medium-lift utility helicopter.

The arrival of the H-20 would mark the completion of China’s “nuclear triad” of ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and air-launched weapons.

An H-6K bomber, or China’s B-52, flies over the South China Sea. Photo: AP
An H-6K bomber, or China’s B-52, flies over the South China Sea. Photo: AP

Chinese state television has said the H-20 could alter the strategic calculus between the US and China by doubling the strike range of its current H-6K, dubbed the country’s B-52.

The H-20 has reportedly been designed to strike targets beyond the second island ring – which includes US bases in Japan, Guam, the Philippines and other countries – from bases in mainland China. The third island chain extends to Hawaii and coastal Australia.

It will be equipped with nuclear and conventional missiles with a maximum take-off weight of at least 200 tonnes and a payload of up to 45 tonnes. The bomber is expected to fly at subsonic speeds and could potentially unleash four powerful hypersonic stealth cruise missiles.

China Desperately Needs To Solve Engine Problems

However, like China’s first active stealth fighter jet, the J-20, engine development of the H-20 bomber has fallen behind schedule, according to sources.

For the J-20, engineers were developing high-thrust turbofan WS-15 engines, but the jet is understood to be using either Chinese WS-10B or Russian-built AL-31FM2/3 engines, which compromise its maneuverability and stealth capabilities at subsonic speeds.

Military enthusiasts have speculated the H-20 might use the NK-321 Russian engine but two independent military sources said it would be equipped with an upgraded WS-10 engine.

WS-10A Engine

“The WS-10 is still a transitional engine for the H-20 because it is not powerful enough. The eligible replacement may take two to three years for development,” one of the sources said.China must meet air force demand for J-20 stealth jets, say analysts

H-20 Is Not A Game Changer

The speed of the H-20 would be slower than its original design, with some of its original combat capability and actual range being reduced.

“That’s why the American air force doesn’t care about the H-20, because it is not strong and powerful enough to cause any challenge to their B-2 and B-21 bombers.”

If the US decided to deploy more F-35 supersonic fighter jets – it has already sold about 200 to Japan and South Korea – it could push China to bring forward the unveiling of the new bomber, the second source said.

“For example, if some US decision makers decided to deploy up to 500 F-35s to Japan, South Korea, and even Singapore, India and Taiwan – making almost all of China’s neighbors in the Indo-Pacific region use F-35s to contain China – that would push Beijing to launch the H-20 as soon as possible.”

The H-20 is believed to have been in development since the early 2000s. The project to develop a strategic bomber was first announced by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in 2016.

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