A fast-flying, heavy strategic aircraft is needed and long overdue, defense experts say. “Please try your best to develop new bomber aircraft.” That was the last wish of the dying Lieutenant General Liu Yudi, 92, a flying ace from the Korean War and a former senior officer of the People’s Liberation Army air force.
Lying on his deathbed in the PLA Air Force General Hospital in Beijing, the legendary war hero used his last strength to write those words on a piece of paper and give it to General Ma Xiaotian, the air force commander who came to bid him farewell on Feb 16. Early the next morning, Liu died.
Whether Ma promised to fulfill Liu’s wish is unknown, but a succession of recently emerging signs indicate that China has decided to develop a next-generation strategic bomber.
According to the latest issue of Kanwa Defense Review, a Canada-based publication specializing in defense affairs and weapons technology, a meeting held recently by the military defined the PLA air force as a “strategic force”, a title previously monopolized by the PLA Second Artillery Corps, the country’s de facto strategic missile force. Officers attending the meeting reportedly urged the PLA air force to prioritize the development of a long-range strategic bomber.
In Chinese aviation terminology, long-range strategic bomber refers to an aircraft capable of carrying more than 10 metric tons of air-to-ground weaponry and flying at least 8,000 km without refueling. Unlike tactical bombers and attack aircraft, which are used in air interdiction operations to attack enemy combatants and military equipment, strategic bombers are built to fly into enemy territory to destroy targets such as major military installations, arms factories and important cities.
Attendees at the meeting reached a consensus that the long-range strategic bomber is of great significance to the Chinese military because it will enable the air force to strike a second “island chain” to deny foreign military intervention in case of an emergency or conflict, the Kanwa report said.
PLA military theorists conceive of two island chains as forming a geographic basis for China’s maritime defensive perimeter. The precise boundaries of these chains have never been officially defined, but by commonly accepted definitions, the first chain refers to a series of islands that stretch from Japan in the north to Taiwan and the Philippines to the south. The second chain runs from the north at the Bonin Islands and moves southward through the Marianas and the Caroline Islands.
Kanwa assumes that the design for the heavy bomber will soon unfold, after the completion of the Y-20 heavy airlifter, which is expected in one to two years.
Publicity officers at the PLA air force and Aviation Industry Corp of China, the country’s leading aircraft manufacturer, could not be reached for comment.
Another major indication of bomber development can be found in Aerospace Knowledge magazine, a defense technology publication in China that boasts a group of well-informed writers who have some inside knowledge of the country’s aviation industry and air force.
A series of articles in the magazine’s June issue analyzed Chinese bombers’ performance and called for the development of a long-range stealth bomber, probably representing a collective notion among industry insiders that China should start designing a long-range strategic bomber as soon as possible.
“A medium-range bomber can’t essentially fix the PLA air force’s shortcomings in terms of strategic strike and strategic deterrence. … Thus the air force does need an intercontinental strategic bomber capable of penetrating an enemy’s air defenses,” one article said.
The petition for a mighty bomber is not new. Chinese military experts have urged the government for at least two years to seek a replacement for the Cold War-era H-6 aircraft.
Wu Guohui, a military equipment researcher at PLA National Defense University, said in October 2013 that large bombers were once ignored by air powers because they were deemed as having poor survivability. However, the United States, Russia and China have acknowledged the advantages of stealth bombers. They can carry out nuclear strikes as well as long-distance precision bombing by conventional weapons, and can be used repeatedly, meaning they are more cost-efficient and agile than a non-reusable ground-to-ground missile.
“The U.S. has decided to invest $1.2 billion every year to develop its second-generation long-range stealth bomber based on its Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, while Russia is upgrading its current bombers and developing a new stealth bomber,” he said. “China still lags behind in this field, so we should develop our own long-range bomber.”
Despite some foreign military analysts’ assessment of China as one of the three air powers after the U.S. and Russia that still maintain strategic bombers, the PLA air force must be fully aware that its bomber fleet is much weaker compared with its counterparts in the U.S. and Russia, because it only has an unknown number of H-6 bombers, which are based on the Soviet-era Tu-16 Badger, designed in the 1950s and retired by Russia in the early 1990s, military observers said.
The U.S. Strategic Command now has the Boeing B-52, the Rockwell B-1 and the super-powerful Northrop Grumman B-2, while Russia’s Long Range Aviation Command owns the Tupolev Tu-160, Tu-95 and T-22M.
According to Western aviation sources, Aviation Industry Corp of China has continued to upgrade the H-6 with the latest avionics equipment and new materials, and has developed a family of variants that can conduct various tasks, including aerial refueling and reconnaissance. However, the aircraft’s antiquated structure, together with old engines, leaves it incapable of performing long-range operations or flying deep into enemy territory to deploy ordnance.
The result of the H-6’s lagging capability shows. The air force had never sent bombers far from Chinese territory until March, when several H-6Ks, the plane’s latest variant, flew to the western Pacific Ocean to conduct an exercise.
“Although the H-6K is equipped with Russian Soloviev D-30KP-2 turbofan engines, gaining a claimed combat radius of 3,500 km rather than other variants’ 1,800-km radius, it still flies too slowly,” a military analyst who wished to be identified only as Fang told China Daily. “With a maximum speed of 1,050 km/h, the plane will be easily intercepted by supersonic fighter jets unless the Chinese air force dispatches a great number of fighter aircraft to escort the bombers.”
To ensure an effective long-range strike capability, this is the time for China to develop an advanced bomber that has faster speed and stronger penetration ability, he said.
Having realized the necessity of a powerful bomber, China has been striving to get one for a long time, Kanwa said in its report, quoting unidentified sources from Ukraine as claiming that China had repeatedly tried to get technical intelligence of the Soviet-era supersonic strategic bomber Tu-22M3 Backfire C, or even an actual plane from the eastern European nation. The attempts failed because of restrictions imposed by international conventions, the report said.
Over the past decade, speculation has arisen from time to time based on assertions made by Chinese aviation fans on military forums, leading to foreign industry publications making guesses about China’s possible development of its own long-range strategic bomber.
Aviation Week and Space Technology, the U.S.-based industry bible, reported in September that while the US air force works on the long-range strike bomber project, China is also proceeding with its own bomber plans.
An article in January last year in China Aviation News, a newspaper of Aviation Industry Corp of China, said preliminary research for an undisclosed project had been approved.
Sources told sina.com, a popular news portal in China, that the project is about China’s long-range strategic bomber and that it was initiated by AVIC in 2008, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported.
In addition to such unconfirmed news, Chinese military enthusiasts have been further pleased by official revelations about the top leadership’s support of the air force’s drive for cutting-edge bombers.
In February, President Xi Jinping, who is commander-in-chief of the PLA, inspected a PLA bomber unit in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, and boarded a “new-type bomber”, which Western military observers said was an H-6K, China’s most advanced bomber.
Military experts said Xi’s attention to the bomber force will boost the PLA air force’s effort to develop a new aircraft.
“President Xi has defined the PLA air force as a strategic force for China, urging the service to build offensive capability rather than only maintaining defensive strength, as it did in the past,” said Wang Ya’nan, deputy editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge. “So the air force must possess a long-range strategic bomber because without this weapon, you can’t call yourself a strategic force, and you can never really own an offensive ability.”
Xi’s instruction was reiterated in May by PLA strategy planners who said in a military strategy white paper that the air force will strive to shift its focus from territorial air defense to obtaining both defensive and offensive capabilities.
Without knowing the specifications for the new bomber, military experts have expressed different expectations. Wang of Aerospace Knowledge said China could consider a design similar to Russia’s Tu-160.
“Our new bomber should be supersonic like the Tu-160, which means it can penetrate air defenses at extra-fast speed. But unlike the Russian plane, ours should have fixed wings rather than variable-sweep wings, which add complexity to the design and have become less useful in modern air operations,” he said.
“In addition, I don’t think we need to build a flying-wing aircraft such as the B-2, because such a plane will be too technologically and financially challenging for China. Must we invest an astronomical amount of resources to develop a Chinese version of B-2 just for its fancy appearance and questionable stealth capability?”
However, the view of Du Wenlong, a senior researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, contrasts with Wang’s.
“Our new strategic bomber should feature high survivability and long-distance penetration, both of which require the aircraft to be low-observable,” Du said. Though the Tu-160 is supersonic, its conventional configuration doesn’t support stealth capability, Du said.
Shao Yongling, a military strategy professor at PLA Second Artillery Corps Command College, said that because today’s air defense system is so advanced and dense, China’s next-generation strategic bomber must have stealth capability as well as a large payload, which should at least be more than the six cruise missiles that can be carried by the H-6K.