China's mysterious H-20 bomber has a nuclear mission, but that's got nothing on its real threat

CCTV screengrabA possible prototype image of China’s mysterious H-20 bomber.
  • China’s much-hyped but never-before-seen H-20 nuclear bomber has reportedly made “great progress” in its development recently and may even fly publicly in a 2019 military parade.
  • Little is known about the H-20 bomber, but experts say it’s less about nuclear deterrence patrols and more about fighting actual wars.
  • A stealth flying-wing type bomber for China could allow it to attack US bases in Japan and Guam in a way the US doesn’t really have any defences against yet.

China’s much-hyped but never-before-seen H-20 nuclear bomber has reportedly made “great progress” in its development recently and may even fly publicly in a 2019 military parade.

But while China bills the mysterious jet as a modern answer to the US’ airborne leg of its nuclear triad, a close read of Beijing’s military and nuclear posture reveals another mission much more likely to actually draw blood.

Though the jet remains an absolute unknown with only concept-art depictions in existence, let’s start with what we know. China describes the H-20 as a “new long-distance strategic bomber,” which recent imagery suggests will take a stealthy delta-wing design.

An Asia Times profile of the H-20 cited Chinese media as saying “the ultimate goal for the H-20” is an “operational range to 12,000 kilometers with 20 tons of payload.”

“A large flying wing design … is one of the only aerodynamic ways of achieving the broadband all-aspect stealth required for such a design,” Justin Bronk, an aerial combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider.

Only one nation on earth operates a large stealth bomber, and that’s the US. But the B-2 has never launched a nuclear bomb, instead it’s been used as a stealthy bomb truck that can devastate hardened enemy targets with massive payloads on a nearly invisible platform.

According to Lawrence Trevethan, a researcher at the China Aerospace Studies Institute, which works with the US Air Force, that’s what China’s H-20 will likely do as well.

“I see the H-20 as a nearly exact replacement for the H-6 (China’s current theoretically nuclear-capable bomber),” Trevethan told Business Insider.

Ignore the nuclear mission

Trevethan, an expert on China’s nuclear posture, pointed out that the H-6 never trains with nuclear bombs. China’s nuclear-missile capable submarines have never had a verified nuclear deterrence patrol. China’s nuclear weapons are not kept mated atop missiles, unlike Russia and the US.

And there’s a simple reason why, according to Trevethan: Nuclear weapons are expensive and mutual nuclear war has never happened.

Instead, conventional war happens – and happens all the time.

Trevethan called the H-20 a bomber “that might actually contribute to a military victory in a war fought as its [nuclear] doctrine imagines. “

Bronk agreed, saying the “biggest impact of a B-2 style capability for the PLAAF [China’s air force] would be much greater vulnerability of bases such as Guam and Kadana to conventional precision strikes.”

Currently, the US has Aegis and THAAD missile defences in Guam and its Japanese bases, which pose a threat to China’s fleet of missiles. But the US has no established defence against a stealth bomber, which China will likely seek to exploit with the H-20.

Not built for cold wars

B-52 refuel b 52USAFThroughout the 1960s, US B-52 nuclear-capable bombers stayed airborne and ready to launch nearly around the clock.

Instead of a simple air-based nuclear deterrent, like the US and Russia maintain, spend tons of money on, and hope to never use, China’s H-20 looks more like a bomber that actually plans to fight wars. (The US’ bomber fleet, both nuclear and non-nuclear, fights in wars, but never in a nuclear capacity.)

China’s defensive nuclear posture also allows it more leeway in a shooting war. If the US and Russia got into a battle, and either side saw ballistic missiles heading for the other, it would have to assume they were nuclear missiles and retaliate before it faced utter destruction.

But with no missiles ready to go and a much smaller stockpile, China can fire missiles at US bases and ships without giving the impression of a full-on nuclear doomsday.

By fitting the H-20’s concept into China’s nuclear posture, it comes across as more of a credible conventional strike platform meant to beat the US back in the Pacific rather than a flying nuclear threat.

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