According to reports in Chinese media, the H-20 stealth bomber is nearing its first test flights — potentially suggesting that their long-range bomber may reach operational status before America’s forthcoming B-21 Raider.

While long-range stealth bombers like America’s B-2 Spirit have been a facet of American force projection for decades, China’s bomber fleet remains far more dated. The primary bomber employed by the People’s Liberation Army’s Air Force is the H-6 series of bombers — which is nothing more than a Chinese variation of the Soviet-era Tu-16. These bombers first took to the skies in 1959 and remain in service today, making China’s claims of a new stealth bomber a significant development in both technology and supposed capability.

Like America’s next generation long range stealth bomber, the Northrop Grumman helmed B-21 Raider, there are few details about the H-20 to work with. Many defense experts and pundits within China tend to compare it to America’s legacy stealth bomber, the B-2, but talk has shifted recently toward the B-21 instead. This shift may be a matter of managed perceptions, as China attempts to convey the image of a nation with comparable aircraft technology to the juggernaut that is America’s laundry list of aviation defense contractors. After all, to date there is little evidence to suggest that China has developed sufficient mastery of stealth technology throughout the production process, leaving many to question whether their F-22 copy-cat J-20 platform is actually as stealthy as they claim it to be.

In this side-by-side comparison put together by The Warzone, you can clearly see China’s recent announcement was modeled specifically after Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider announcement from 2015.

Images courtesy of Northrop Grumman and China Defense Online

Development of the H-20 likely began in 2015, following a series of statements from the Chinese government about the nation’s need for a new long-range bomber that could carry out deep penetration missions on foreign shores. Current assumptions about China’s military strategy in the years to come, however, suggest that such an aircraft might see heaviest use over the contested South China Sea, where a radar-evading, heavy ordnance bomber could mean serious trouble for wayward American aircraft carriers steaming through the waterway China has attempted to claim as their own.

China has made it clear that this new bomber will be nuclear capable, suggesting that the intended payload will likely be China’s CH-10K air-launched cruise missiles, which can be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads. The Chinese rumor mill also suggests that a new variant of the CH-10 that has a reduced radar signature may be in the works, though thus far there is little evidence to substantiate the rumors.

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China’s claims regarding the H-20 have varied since they first acknowledged the program in 2016, though that is likely the result of maturing technologies shifting the goalposts of what they believe they’re capable of achieving. Most recently, they’ve suggested that the bomber will boast a 7,500-mile range without refueling and be able to carry a massive 20 tons of ordnance. Experts believe these claims to be exaggerations, with most estimates granting the bomber a formidable range of 5,000 miles and maybe half of that total payload capacity.

China’s recent announcement that they will soon begin test flights of the H-20 may suggest that they’re closer to fielding an operational aircraft that Northrop Grumman is with the B-21. The U.S. Air Force expects to begin receiving their newest stealth bomber as soon as the mid-2020s, which would suggest that they should already be conducting test flights with technology demonstrators or a full-fledged prototype, but thus far the B-21 has seemed notably absent from American skies. While it’s entirely possible that Northrop Grumman has managed to keep a tight lid on the program’s development, it seems unlikely in the age of commercial satellite imagery and smartphones that no one has snapped a single photograph of a functioning B-21, if any do exist.

To date, this artist’s rendering of the B-21 provided by Northrop Grumman remains the best look we’ve gotten at the aircraft.

Assuming China really is close to beginning test flights with the H-20, there may still be a long road ahead before it’s actually flying in an operational status. China has a long history of utilizing stolen and purchased technology to advance their own military endeavors, but this method often robs their aircraft of the nuanced details in production that were honed throughout development. Like China’s troubled J-15, based on Russia’s successful Su-33, which has since proven unreliable. Or their two fifth-generation fighters based on stolen plans from America’s F-22 and F-35: the knock-offs rarely perform as well as their inspirations.

The unveiling occurs at the end of this video, posted by China Daily to Twitter:

 

Feature image courtesy of the Chinese internet