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Report: China’s future nuclear stealth bomber could reach Pearl Harbor

An artist’s impression of what the H-20 may look like. (Weibo/Released)
December 07, 2020

The H-20 stealth bomber China currently has in development may be able to reach as far as U.S. bases in Guam and even Hawaii, according to a recent report by the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI).

The H-20 bomber is still under development, but the RUSI report estimates H-20’s capabilities exceed those estimated by the Pentagon in an August report. At the time, the Pentagon assessed the Chinese bomber would have a range of at least 8,500 km or about 5,280 miles.

According to a copy of the RUSI report obtained by the South China Morning Post, the Chinese nuclear-capable bomber could have a range of about 12,000 km or about 7,450 miles, putting Hawaii within potential striking distance of the Chinese mainland.

The Chinese city of Shanghai, on China’s east coast, is about 5,100 miles from Hawaii. An H-20 bomber could theoretically reach Hawaii and be able to return to China with midair refueling on its way back.

In August, the Pentagon also assessed the H-20 bomber could likely carry a payload of at least 10 metric tonnes, about 11 U.S. tons or 22,000 pounds. The Pentagon assessed the bomber would also have the ability to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons and that the aircraft could debut “sometime in the next decade.” The South China Morning Post reported, based on mainland Chinese media claims, that the H-20’s actual payload may be as much as 45 metric tonnes, or about 49.6 U.S. tons, and potential payloads could include four stealth or hypersonic cruise missiles.

By comparison, the U.S. Air Force’s similarly designed flying wing stealth bomber, the B-2 Spirit, has an approximate range of about 6,000 miles and about 40,000 pounds, 20 U.S. tons, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

“Armed with nuclear and conventional stand-off missiles, the H-20 would represent a major break from previous PLAAF (PLA Air Force) doctrine and equipment development practice,” the RUSI report reads.

The South China Morning Post reported China’s current air force configuration is as a regional air power that can operate over the nearby archipelagos of the Pacific, including Japan and the Philippines.

“The H-20, by contrast, would give China a truly intercontinental power-projection capability,” the RUSI report reads.

The new assessments of the H-20 bomber’s capabilities come amid rising tensions between the U.S. and China in the Pacific. The U.S. has been configuring its forces and new weapon development with a potential conflict in the South Pacific in mind. China has also been bolstering its presence in the contested South China Sea. China recently appeared to acknowledge the potential for armed conflict when, in a recent PLA Air Force advertisement that depicted a Chinese H-6K bomber striking the U.S. island territory of Guam.

Song Zhongping, a former instructor with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) told the South China Morning Post the H-20 had been designed with the potential to reach U.S. territories in mind, establishing the bomber as part of a Chinese nuclear triad that also includes land and sea-launched nuclear weapons.

Zhongping said the H-20’s “flywing design means it is unlikely to have aerial combat capability, therefore, stealth is more important.”

As China continues to develop its H-20 bomber, the U.S. is also working on a new flying wing bomber, the B-21 Raider. According to a 2018 Air Force press release, the new B-21 bomber is expected to replace the current B-1 Lancer swing-wing bombers and B-2 Spirit flying wing bombers currently in service at three existing bomber bases beginning in the mid-2020s.