China’s new stealth bomber ‘nowhere near as good’ as US’s, intel official says

The plane China built to rival the United States’ B-21 stealth bomber doesn’t even come close to U.S. capability, a U.S. intel official said Monday. 

Since China announced it was developing a long-range bomber in 2016, the Xi’an H-20 stealth bomber has been shrouded in secrecy. A Chinese military official said in March that the bomber would be unveiled “soon,” noting there aren’t any major challenges left in the bomber’s development. 

But the U.S. isn’t worried about China’s future bomber, according to a Defense Department intelligence official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. 

“The thing with the H-20 is when you actually look at the system design, it’s probably nowhere near as good as U.S. [low observable] platforms, particularly more advanced ones that we have coming down. They’ve run into a lot of engineering design challenges, in terms of how do you actually make that system capability function in a similar way to a B-2 or B-21,” the official said Monday.

The U.S. official also cautioned that China has been saying for years this bomber is coming “soon.” Even if China publicly unveils the bomber to show off military prowess, that “doesn’t necessarily mean it actually delivers them the kind of capability that they would need, or at the quantity that they would need,” the official said.

The Pentagon made a big show of publicly unveiling its new stealth bomber in 2022. The Northrop Grumman-built Raider flew for the first time at the end of last year and has formally entered production. The Air Force plans to buy at least 100 of the bombers to replace its B-1 and B-2 fleets. 

This is not the first time a U.S. official has downplayed China’s air force. The former head of U.S. Air Forces in Pacific said in 2022 that China’s J-20—its most advanced fighter jet—was just “OK.”

The intel official, who spoke to reporters during an unclassified threat briefing, said the J-20 is a “highly capable system” and the question isn’t whether China can deliver advanced systems, but whether the People’s Liberation Army has the “operational proficiency” to use these systems.

Because of the PLA’s lack of experience, if war broke out with China today, the U.S. military would win, the official said—albeit with large-scale losses. 

“The biggest…challenge for the Chinese side is actually not so much capability of actual systems, it’s more capability of personnel to effectively employ those systems at speed and at scale. We, as a U.S. military, have a lot of experience fighting wars. And yes, you talk to any operator, and they’ll tell you all the problems we have, but quite frankly, we’re able to figure out how to execute kill chains. The Chinese don’t really have anybody right now at all, in the PLA, who’s actually been in a war,” the official said.

China’s military has also been dealing with corruption within its ranks, and recently purged nine generals from the national legislative body. Bloomberg reported that the scandal was related to nuclear missiles that were filled with water, not fuel, and missile silo lids that did not work—a sign that some of China’s military capabilities might not be what they’re cracked up to be. 

Asked about the reports, the official said “those actually are most likely real instances of actual corruption in the PLA” and that some of the missiles “were probably filled with water or had door lids that didn’t open, but not all of them across the entire force.”

Still, the Pentagon is plowing ahead to modernize in preparation for a potential war with China, which the official said Xi Jinping “almost certainly” believes is inevitable. 

“I don’t want to rely on the Chinese not being good. Because we’re not going to know they’re not good until they’re shooting at us, and I don’t want to be in a position where I find out, Oh, they actually are that good,” the official said.

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