by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.Chinese officials seem intent on raising the profile of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), which has been responsible for securing mainland China’s airspace since the rise to power of the communist regime. At a meeting of Chinese defence officials in July 2015, a call was made for PLAAF to acquire a long-range strategic bomber with the capacity to fly more than 8,000 kilometres without refueling and to carry a payload of more than 10 tons of air-to-ground munitions. This follows the defence white paper issued by China’s Ministry of National Defence in May 2015, which also calls on PLAAF to “boost its capabilities for strategic early warning, air strike, air and missile defense, information countermeasures, airborne operations, strategic projection, and comprehensive support”.
This has worrying implications for security in the Asia-Pacific region. Such a hypothetical bomber could strike targets as far away as Guam and could be employed against the Philippines or Indonesia in any conflict regarding the South China Sea. The impact in the North Pacific could be even more severe. Increasingly frequent airspace violations near Japan’s Northern Territories, also known as the Kuril Islands, by Russian Federation Tu-95 strategic bombers have prompted Japan to step up its own patrols. The prospect for Chinese bombers to also begin encroaching on Japanese airspace could prompt a rush to acquire expanded air defence capabilities, further militarizing what was once a largely uninhabited and tranquil region.
Japan certainly seems to be preparing for just such a scenario. In remarks at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC in July 2015, Japan’s top military commander Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano said that, “[m]y sense is that this aggressive trend will continue into the future where China will go beyond the island chain in the Pacific. So if anything, I believe the situation would worsen.” China’s 2013 declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea coupled with further ranging flights by Chinese strategic bombers would certainly seem to be the recipe for a serious confrontation in disputed airspace.Currently, PLAAF operates a fleet of 15 H-6K nuclear-capable bombers, essentially a Soviet Tu-16 bomber built under license by Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation. These aircraft make China part of an exclusive club – only the United States and the Russian Federation are currently able to deploy strategic bombers. Based on a design that dates back to 1959, however, the H-6K was never intended as a lasting component in China’s security toolbox. Since the 1990s, Xian has reportedly been developing a bomber design capable of meeting requirements similar to those set out at the aforementioned May 2015 defence meeting.
The Xian H-20, which could enter service in 2025, is rumoured to be a subsonic stealth bomber with a similar wing design to the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit in service with the United States Air Force. For perspective, it is worth noting that the B-2 first entered service in 1997 and has a range of 11,000 kilometres, greatly exceeding the capabilities envisioned for the H-20. There is also some question as to whether Xian will be able to produce the high-performance turbofan engine and other equipment essential to such an aircraft design. This Chinese aircraft manufacturer has come far recently, particularly in its production of the Y-20 strategic transport for PLAAF. Xian has demonstrated that it can build an aircraft with a range of approximately 8,000 kilometres when carrying a payload of 40 tons – but it still had to rely on Russian turbofan engines.
The H-20 and other experimental aircraft projects should be best understood not as a means by which China is seeking to secure a strategic advantage over the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, but rather as an effort to catch up with American military technology. The capability gap has been deeply unsettling for China’s political leadership; Xu Qiliang, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, wrote in 2013 that the People’s Liberation Army cannot meet the needs of national security in its current state and requires rapid modernization in order to compare with the world’s advanced militaries. This political ambition for a “great leap forward” in military capability is reportedly placing considerable strain on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). PLAAF pilots now receive an average of 100 to 150 flight hours each year, comparable to their American counterparts, but the distribution of these flight hours varies widely between regions of China, indicating that some pilots are being exhausted in order to provide a presence in disputed areas and to create the impression that China is on equal terms militarily with the United States.
Ultimately, Chinese political figures will need to come to terms with the technological and human resources constraints facing the PLA. A modern military cannot be created overnight, and it will take many more years of trial and error for Xian to develop turbofan engines able to keep the dreams of Xu Qiliang and his colleagues aloft.