Apparently sensing trouble post-withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and in the midst of its continuing standoff with India, China is conducting the final trials of H-20 strategic stealth bombers at its Hotan airbase, opposite eastern Ladakh, before their deployment in the area.
The testing exercise that began on Tuesday will continue till June 22, the day that marks 100 years of formation of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its rule.
Top sources privy to the development said at least three H-20 bombers, developed as an area-specific asset, are aimed at blunting the edge India acquired through the acquisition of Rafale jets.
The stealth feature and long endurance coupled with the capability to carry heavy payloads could potentially dodge the “detect and disable radar” capability of Rafales, they said.
The H-20, though officially not announced by China yet, is likely to be deployed after the assessment of the final test runs and possible tweaks at bases opposite Ladakh.
The induction of H-20 bombers could be a "game changer" as China is the third country after the US and Russia to possess stealth technology for fighters, sources said. The move could have repercussions for geopolitics in the region as also powerplay by the US and its allies in the disputed South China Sea and Taiwan.
“The stealth feature makes the Chinese strategic supersonic jets undetectable by any radar and Beijing seems to be going aggressive in protecting its investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as also Afghanistan,” a counter-terrorism expert said.
The Chinese jets’ enhanced “beyond visual range” (3,000 km) and significant payload can make these bombers hit targets in Balochistan, Afghanistan or Ladakh even without crossing the boundary, he said.
The project for development of the H-20 bombers was undertaken by China in 2010 when India was negotiating with the French Dassault Aviation to buy 126 Rafale jets. Within a span of over a decade, China reached the manufacturing stage. In contrast, India, in fact, curtailed the order size of the Rafales from 126 to just 36 without technology transfer despite the depleting sanctioned squadron strength.
The Chinese intention of making these strategic bombers an area-specific asset is clear from Beijing’s decision to designate the Hotan base for testing these stealth machines.
The development also marks a significant shift in Chinese strategy of deploying troops on the ground in areas bordering Ladakh as well as ramping up air defences to respond to any challenges with full might, officials said.
Earlier, the H-20 bombers were slated to be inducted in 2025. However, the timeline has been compressed which signals a shift in China’s approach in the region and the larger geopolitical space.
The H-20s are also estimated to be capable of carrying nuclear payloads and carry stealth missiles to defy air defences of enemy forces.
According to a 2020 Pentagon report on Chinese military power, the H-20s are estimated to have a range of 5,281 miles and a lift capacity of 10 tons of munitions.
That was way too fast. Should have happened a few years later.
I don't think our current levels of operational missile RF seeker tech can actually see these bombers from sufficient range.