America’s venerable B-2 Spirit may be thirty years old, but it still offers the United States a unique combat capability not found in any other nation.
The stealthy platform can penetrate deep into contested airspace, delivering massive amounts of ordnance on unsuspecting targets while avoiding detection and — just as importantly — weapons lock from air defense systems. In a potential war with a near-peer adversary like China, it would likely be up to the B-2 (or to the forthcoming B-21) to fly long-range bombing missions against hypersonic anti-ship systems stationed along China’s coast. (This in turn would clear the way for America’s carriers to close to within 500 miles or so of the Chinese shores where they could begin launching sorties of F-35s to engage air defenses and Chinese fighters.)
The ability to fly for thousands of miles, while avoiding detection, and then engage ground targets in contested airspace is something that the United States may be taking for granted, as stealth platforms have been a staple of America’s Air Force since the 1970s, but in the rapidly developing militaries of Russia and China, the stealth revolution has just begun.
Nevertheless, while America may still have the lead in stealth technology, the fact that these nations are closing the gap means that America will soon have to consider the possibility of stealth bombers flying missions into our own contested air space in the years to come.
China’s forthcoming H-20 Stealth Bomber is exactly the sort of platform that could one day pose a serious threat not only to American interests abroad, but potentially, to the all but untouchable American mainland. Aside from Cold War fears of ICBM launches (and the occasional North Korean threat), mainland United States has been blissfully removed from the laundry list of wars that America has engaged in since 1812. This is thanks to friendly neighbors to the north and south and to thousands of miles of ocean to the east and west. This geographic isolation has made America’s “lower 48” states a venerable fortress — one that has been bolstered by America’s global satellites and military installations infrastructure that keep tabs on large troop movements and any potential threat making its way toward U.S. shores.
But that’s precisely the sort of situation stealth platforms like the B-2 and China’s H-20 are designed to manage, and it’s not like America’s coastlines are lined with advanced air defense systems. If America failed to spot an inbound H-20 as it flew over the Pacific, there’s little chance that it would be detected as it entered American airspace (provided China’s stealth technology performs as advertised). Under the right circumstances, the H-20 could very likely conduct strikes against mainland American targets… but this would be an incredible long shot. Even if the H-20 is everything it’s promised to be, China’s weak military infrastructure would hinder such a strike.
With a range of just over 3,100 miles, the H-20 would have to refuel more than once to accomplish such a mission, and even if it managed to evade detection, the tankers it would need to rely on along its route would not. And that is assuming that China could deploy tankers to refuel the bomber from foreign airstrips. Currently, China’s maintains only one foreign military installation — in Djibouti, Africa.
China also lacks the infrastructure, equipment and network of friendly ports necessary to conduct “blue water” naval operations too far from its own shores, so carrier-based refuelling would also be out of the question. This may not be the case for long, however: China is already making rapid progress on this front through economic programs like the Belt and Road Initiative. Eventually, China intends to establish friendly ports the world over thanks to economic leverage won through these sorts of programs, which can then be used to support broad naval operations — not unlike America’s approach in establishing a global presence following World War II.
So, while the H-20 could very well represent a technological leap in China’s aerial operations, it will still be some time before China poses a real and legitimate risk to American shores.
But “some time” isn’t forever, and China is clearly looking to take a page out of America’s book when it comes to global strike capabilities.