A side and top-view of the artist's rendering of what might be China's design for a stealth bomber.
You're looking at what some people are speculating is China's design for a stealth bomber. It may look like a simple model right now. But these Chinese models have a habit of turning into working airplanes. And if that happens in this case, watch out. Because it could potential give these Chinese the ability to penetrate deep, deep into enemy territory without the opponents ever knowing what hit them.
Remember, designs very similar to China's J-31 stealth fighter and its Li Jian stealthy-ish drone appeared as trade show models only two years before full-size versions of the planes were revealed in the past year.
The latest plane resembles a cross between Russia's PAK DA stealth bomber design, it's T-50 PAK FA stealth fighter and Northrop Grumman's YF-23 Black Widow -- the stealth jet that lost the contest to be the world's first fifth-generation fighter to Lockheed Martin's YF-22 Raptor. (The cockpit also resembles this fictional monstrosity.)
What could such a plane be used for? It would likely serve as a penetrating bomber designed to keep an enemy far from China's shores by sneaking past enemy radar and attacking enemy bases and ships with cruise missiles. Some have speculated that China's J-20, which is huge for a fighter, was meant to fulfill this role; similar to a stealthy version of the F-111 Aardvark or F-15E Strike Eagle. However, we're seeing the J-20 conducting flight tests with air-to-air missiles; a possible indication that it may be a high-speed interceptor -- similar to the Soviet Union's giant MiG-25 Foxbat and MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors -- designed to steak out and shoot down approaching bombers.
Chinese Web forums claim the new stealth bomber might have a length of 91-feet and a wingspan of 72-feet. This is smaller than all of the U.S. and Russia's strategic bombers such as the B-1 Lancer or Tu-22M but slightly larger than the U.S.'s F-15E Strike Eagle tactical bomber. The jet is also rumored to have an operational radius of just under 2000-miles.
It should be pointed out that earlier rumors about China investing in a fleet of Russian-designed Tu-22M supersonic bombers were reportedly untrue. Rather than field the supersonic jets, China is developing a new version of its H-6 bomber -- which is based on the Soviet Tu-16 Badger that was designed in the 1950s and retired by Russia in the early 1990s.
Chinese military officials have even said that buying a 1970s-design like the Tu-22M makes little sense given the fact that U.S. radars could spot the planes coming from a long way off. This could be taken as a hint that the PLA navy or air force recognizes the need for a stealthy-bomber capable of keeping adversaries at bay.
It costs a ton of money and time to develop and field an effective bomber force. It's not just the cost of building and buying stealth planes. The Chinese will need to develop an entire support network of maintenance crews, basing infrastructure capable of handling the planes, a large aerial tanker fleet to refuel them and perhaps most importantly, learn how to effectively use them.
One interesting thing to note about the design shown above is that its engine exhaust outlets appear to be square -- a stealthier design than the traditional round nozzles seen on China's current version of stealthy planes. This could be a sign that China is making progress in the extremely challenging art of jet engine design. This could also be an indication that it will be a long time before China gets the technological knowhow to develop this aircraft. Current reports indicate that China has a long way to go when it comes to engine-making.
Still, the image above might just be a model. Even if real, it will take a long time to produce an fleet of potent bombers.
"The internet really likes airframe models and drawings," Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the aviation consulting firm Teal Group tells us. "The real world doesn't think too much of them. Coming up with concept illustrations is vastly different from building and testing a design, let alone putting it into production. But most of all the aerospace world is increasingly concerned with what's beneath the surface of a plane. Even if China did produce this aircraft, if it had to use Chinese engines and systems, and was integrated with their current level of technology, I'm not sure it would mean very much. It's all a bit of a stretch, for the next few decades at least."
Here's what Aboulafia told us in January when discussing the Tu-22M story
about China's need for modern bombers.
"It would make sense, given China's strategy and power-projection ambitions, but one thing to consider is that building a long range bomber/maritime strike fleet isn't a standalone development," Aboulafia tells Killer Apps. "The up-front costs in terms of training, doctrine, and general fleet bed-down are very large. Even larger is the cost of support aircraft, particularly tankers, that would be useful, if not essential, in making these new bombers effective."
Such investments may be too much for a Chinese military that is buying a number of other, newer weapons systems that range from stealth fighters to anti satellite and cyber weapons.
"Unless the Chinese military budget grows at a near-breakneck pace, a development like this would likely impact other equipment procurement and systems development priorities, including ones that are less conventional and more asymmetric," said Aboulafia.
Even if China manages to get a bomber airborne in the next few years, it will be a while before it has an effective combat fleet. Still, Beijing isn't afraid of embarking on complex strategic weapons programs. The most notable of these being its fleet of aircraft carriers; another expensive strategic weapon system that takes lots of time and money to develop (even with stolen designs), maintain and figure out how to use effectively.