The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has outlined its assessment that China is developing a new fifth-generation tactical strike fighter in its newly published report, China Military Power—Modernising a force to fight and win.
The aircraft, referred to as the JH-XX by some sources and believed to be a product of the 601 (Shenyang) Aircraft Design Institute, is one of two new stealth bombers under development in China, intended to strike regional and global targets. These designs will embody “full-spectrum upgrades compared with current operational bomber fleets” and will employ “many fifth-generation fighter technologies in their design.”
The first of these new bombers is the so-called “Strategic Bomber,” described as a developmental next-generation long-range bomber and understood to be the Xian H-20—an aircraft with a broadly similar flying wing configuration to the Northrop Grumman B-2 and B-21, and credited with a 4,000- to 5,000-nm range with a 20-tonne warload. The H-20 is almost certainly the “developmental strategic bomber” that the DIA believes the PLA Air Force will eventually use to undertake the nuclear mission that it was assigned as of 2017. The DIA reported: "The bomber’s deployment would provide China with its first credible nuclear triad of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air—a posture considered since the Cold War to improve survivability and strategic deterrence."
Meanwhile, the smaller JH-XX is named in the DIA report simply as the “Tactical Bomber” and is described as a developmental next-generation fighter-bomber. The DIA believes that it will incorporate AESA radar and will be armed with long-range air-to-air missiles and precision-guided munitions. Radius of action is likely to be 1,000 to 2,000 nm.
This aircraft would allow the PLAAF to conduct both offensive and defensive air operations farther from China’s borders, reinforcing A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) capabilities and operating beyond the "first island chain" that runs south from the Kuril Islands on to Japan and the Philippines. The aircraft could attack strategic targets in Japan and possibly even on Guam, as well as in India, and the South China Sea.
The DIA report suggests that the development of long-range bombers forms part of China’s ongoing effort to expand the geographical area across which its forces can operate. China’s aim is to deter and deny foreign regional force projection and to prevent any intervention by foreign forces in a Taiwan scenario. The possibility of such an intervention stands in the way of Beijing’s longstanding goal of completing the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. The report described this as the “primary driver for China’s military modernization.”
Images of a model of the JH-XX first appeared in 2013 and artists’ impressions appeared in the May 2018 issue of Aviation Knowledge, China’s oldest, most popular, and prestigious aviation magazine. The aircraft depicted bore a passing resemblance to the U.S. FB-22 and FB-23 penetrating “regional fighter-bomber” concepts of the mid-2000s, with canted twin-tails, internal weapons bays, and two crew. The Chinese aircraft incorporates air intakes on top of the fuselage behind the cockpit, and a ventral main weapons bay, with separate side-mounted bays for air-to-air missiles.
The DIA believes that the new bombers will probably reach initial operational capability “no sooner than 2025.”