China’s most prestigious aviation magazine has published an artist’s depictions of the Chinese Air Force’s next-generation heavy strategic bomber.
The stealth bomber, known as JH-XX to aviation watchers, is a sleek, twin-engine aircraft quite different from U.S. stealth bomber designs. The Pentagon believes the plane will be capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Artist images of the the JH-XX appeared on the cover of the May 2018 issue of Aviation Knowledge magazine. Aviation Knowledge is the oldest and most popular aviation magazine in China. Founded in 1958, it is published by the Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics and has ties to the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Both have links to the Chinese government, including the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (Chinese Air Force.)
The images were brought to public attention by China Defense Blog and the Facebook group Modern Chinese Warplanes, run by Chinese military aviation authority Andreas Rupprecht.
According to Modern Chinese Warplanes, two design philosophies are competing to go into China’s next-gen strategic bomber. One, the H-20, is a stealthy, subsonic flying wing design similar to the American B-2 and B-21 bombers. Another, the JH-XX, is a more conventionally shaped supersonic design. The H-20 is designed with maximum stealth to infiltrate enemy airspace. The JH-XX is less stealthy but capable of supersonic dashes around enemy defenses.
The JH-XX pictures depict a bomber with a fairly conventional airplane layout, including fuselage and horizontal stabilizers. The aircraft also appears built for speed, with an aerodynamic swept-wing configuration. The wings are “clean” without fuel tanks or weapons, with both stored internally to preserve the bomber’s stealthy profile.
While it is no B-2-style flying wing, the JH-XX has plenty of stealth features. The airplane has a flattened appearance, with built-in angles that make the aircraft less susceptible to radar. The air intakes are jagged to reduce their radar signature and placed on top of the aircraft to keep them out of sight to radars operating below the bomber. This suggests the JH-XX is primarily designed as a high-altitude penetrator.
The two engine nozzles are buried inside the tail of the aircraft, reducing its rearward radar aspect, and are shielded horizontally by the large horizontal stabilizers. This lowers the bomber’s odds of being detected by infrared search-and-track sensors and infrared-guided missiles.
The question is, does the JH-XX’s appearance on the cover of Aviation Knowledge mean that the “less stealthy” philosophy has won? If so, why? The flying wing is pretty much the gold standard for stealth warplanes that don’t have to dogfight, providing maximum stealth for penetrating enemy airspace at the expense of maneuverability. It’s possible that despite China’s great strides in military aviation, it still lags behind the United States in so-called “fly by wire” technology, where planes that are, shall we say “less than aerodynamically ideal,” are flyable because of computers capable of making continuous adjustments to the airplane’s control systems.
Another possibility is that China is less confident in stealth as a primary means of aircraft survival and is hedging its bets by picking a bomber with supersonic capability. In 2017, The South China Morning Post reported that Chinese scientists were working on detection systems that used quantum entanglement to locate and track stealthy aircraft, bypassing traditional radars. The JH-XX would replace the Xian H-6 bomber in Chinese service. The H-6 has been in production since the 1950s and is roughly comparable to the USAF’s B-52H heavy strategic bomber. Like the B-52, the H-6 is not at all stealthy and attacks targets at a distance with long-range cruise missiles. According to the U.S. government, the JH-XX would carry nuclear weapons, something the H-6 does not do. China lacks an active inventory of aircraft-launched nuclear weapons. That is apparently about to change.
Of course, we in the West might be reading too much into things. Aviation Knowledge may have simply shared the images to spur magazine newsstand sales. But the magazine is a prestigious one and running pictures of a plane that will never enter production seems unlikely.
According to the Pentagon, China’s stealth bomber should break cover around 2025.