US B-21 Raider and China’s H-20 Bombers Raise the Stakes in Strategic Air Superiority

It is believed that having these bombers in both nations' air forces will allow them to strike hostile targets beyond the range of air and missile defence systems.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

The work on creating two prototypes of the advanced next-generation strategic bomber B-21 Raider for the US Air Force is nearing completion. Assembly is taking place at the Northrop Grumman Corporation facility in California.

Following a series of ground tests, the first flight of the B-21 strategic bomber prototype will be conducted from the manufacturer’s airfield in Palmdale at the Edwards Air Force Base. It is expected that the aircraft will cover a distance of 58 km. At Edwards Air Force Base, the operational flight tests of the bomber will be carried out by personnel from the 420th Test Flight Squadron.


The unpredictability of the military-political environment compels the US leadership to improve its strategic offensive forces (SOF) continually.

The “Global Strike” concept has been in effect since 2005. Its purpose is to allow the US Armed Forces to strike adversary targets quickly and at great distances using nuclear and conventional strike assets.

The United States Air Force published “Air Force Vision for 2035” in 2015.

The document emphasises the need to maintain at least 130 strategic bomber aircraft.

It also emphasises the need to centralise the planning and operational employment of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in various scenarios, thereby optimising the interaction among the nuclear triad’s components: ballistic missile submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and strategic bomber aircraft. The SOF plans to replace extant aircraft with the new strategic bomber B-21 Raider.


The US Air Force has the largest fleet of strategic bomber aircraft globally. The Military Balance bulletin for 2023 indicates that the Air Force operates B-52H, B-2A, and B-1B bombers. Experts observe that the B-1B has been repurposed for non-nuclear missions.

The strategic bomber fleet enables inaccessible operations to hostile air defence systems. Only B-2A bombers currently have the range and capability to penetrate modern air and missile defences. However, the number of these aircraft is insufficient to effectively engage all targets in the Asia-Pacific theatre, which the US military and political leadership considers a top priority for the twenty-first century.

Current efforts to modernise extant bombers demonstrate the United States’ dedication to preserving and enhancing its aviation’s ability to strike anywhere in the world. The global proliferation of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities and the ageing fleet of strategic bombers have forced the United States to expedite the development of the new Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B).

This bomber is intended to replace the ageing B-1B and B-52H aircraft and supplement the fleet of covert B-2A aircraft currently in service. Northrop Grumman Corporation was selected as the prime contractor for the B-21 bomber’s full-scale development, which commenced in November 2015.


The British specialised publication Jane’s Information Group predicts that the B-21 bomber will enter service with the United States Air Force in 2025. This date is supported by an analysis of the LRS-B programme funding and the projected retirement of a significant portion of the US strategic bomber fleet.

A vast array of strike capabilities, minimal observability, a modular configuration, and an integrated radio-electronic system with an open, scalable architecture are crucial in developing the next-generation strategic bomber.

Few specifics regarding the B-21 bomber prevent a comprehensive understanding of its technical features and capabilities. The B-21 prototypes are experimental aircraft, so information on their tactical and technical characteristics (TTC) is restricted and largely dependent on US defence publications.

Analysis of aviation engine design research and development reveals that the US is developing an engine with a thrust of approximately 130 kN (approximately 13,600 kgf) as part of the AETP (Advanced Engine Technology Programme). Pratt and Whitney, a manufacturer of aircraft engines, is one of the primary contractors for the new bomber. Therefore, it is most probable that two PW9000 engines will power the B-21. The payload capacity of an aircraft with such engines will be sufficient to carry the heaviest armaments, such as the recently introduced GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator weighing 13,609 kg.

Please note that the provided information is based on available analysis and public sources and is, therefore, speculative.

H-20 bomber
H-20 bomber


The first Chinese bomber, the “H-6,” was based on the Soviet model Tu-16 and became the backbone of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s long-range aviation for many years. China’s military leadership maintains the combat capabilities of old aircraft and initiates the development of new models as part of its plans to create national armed forces.

In September 1957, the military leadership of the USSR and China signed documents for the construction of an aircraft factory in Harbin to produce medium bombers. Simultaneously, two prototype Tu-16A bombers were transferred to China. Both aircraft were disassembled for research and analysis, and their components were shipped to Harbin and Xi’an aviation factories. In addition, the Soviets supplied the Tu-16 with all necessary technical documentation in 1959.

Chinese specialists at the Harbin factory were able to assemble the first Chinese bomber, designated “H-6” in production documentation, by September 1959. Simultaneously, experts at the Xi’an aviation facility coordinated the production of all “H-6” components. As a result, 1964 completed the first “H-6” prototype.

The aircraft completed the entire cycle of flight tests in 1967, and serial production of the bomber began in 1968. By then, Chinese specialists had mastered the production and maintenance of aircraft engines.

According to Chinese sources, the updated “H-6” bomber designation is “H-6K.” A long-range detection and fire control radar (DLRO) is installed in the bomber’s tip – in front of the pilot’s cabin, and an optoelectronic reconnaissance and targeting station is installed beneath the pilot’s cabin. The station has a high-resolution television camera, an infrared video and photo camera, a laser rangefinder, and a laser sight.

The last two components require guided air-to-ground munitions with laser-seeking heads (LSH) and dual-channel aircraft-weapon data transmission systems.

This variant of the Chinese bomber features Russian D-30KP-2 turbofan engines with a thrust of 12,000 kgf/cm2, for which the vertical and cross-sectional areas of the air apertures have been increased.


Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation engineers are designing the first strategic supersonic stealth bomber, provisionally dubbed “H-20” (the number 20 indicates a maximum speed of Mach 2.0). According to observers of Chinese specialised publications, the estimated cost of the “H-20” is between 2-2.4 billion yuan, which is equivalent to the price of twenty “J-20” fighters.

The “H-20” will have a “complex flying wing” structure and resemble a combination of the American strategic stealth bomber B-2A and the carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle X-47B, according to the plans of Chinese designers. To improve horizontal flight stability, the “H-20” will likely have flexible wingtips (winglets) on its wings.

In designing the new aircraft, Chinese specialists relied on information about the American B-2 bomber obtained from public sources and Chinese intelligence services. Due to these sources, Chinese specialists know that the B-2’s coating allows it to absorb radiation from X-band radar systems.

According to the technical requirements, the aircraft’s optimum range without refuelling should be between 10,000 and 12,000 kilometres. Its maximal combat patrol radius will be between 5,000 and 6,000 kilometres. With the capability of in-flight replenishment, both distances can be increased by 2,000 kilometres. The aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight is determined to be 200 tonnes, of which 45 tonnes are allocated for the payload: 25 tonnes for aviation fuel and up to 20 tonnes for missile and bomb loads.

The engineers must decide between two power plant models, the WS-18 and WS-20, which will be significantly upgraded to facilitate Mach 2.0 flight.

A synthetic aperture radar (SAR) will be installed on the proposed Chinese bomber. Its performance characteristics are anticipated to surpass the AN/APQ-181 radar system deployed on the American B-2 strategic bomber.


Consequently, the political and military leadership of the United States and the People’s Republic of China are focusing closely on developing new strategic bomber aircraft. It is believed that having these bombers in both nations’ air forces will allow them to strike hostile targets beyond the range of air and missile defence systems.

On the other hand, the mere presence of these aircraft will function as a strategic deterrent. A prospective adversary must refrain from engaging in hostilities due to the possibility of inflicting unacceptable damage.


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