A South China Morning Post, report of November 26, 2020, says, China’s H-20 stealth bomber will give China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) a ‘truly intercontinental’ strike capability and allow China to extend its strike range far beyond its own shores. It could also allow the PLAAF to target bases of the United States (US) further afield. With the PLAAF’s cruise missile carrying, H-6 bombers positioned in large numbers at Kashgar and also a few at Hotan, both in Xinjiang, not too far from the Ladakh border, it is time to understand the importance and role of strategic bombers. The major world powers have had strategic bombers since World War II (WW II). Even today, the three largest air forces of the world of the US, Russia and China, operate strategic bombers. India, with the fourth largest air force, does not have strategic bombers. It is also time to understand the implications and need for strategic bombers for India.
The Strategic Bomber
A strategic bomber is a medium-to-long-range aircraft designed to deliver large amounts of air-to-ground weaponry on distant targets for impeding the enemy’s capacity to wage war. Unlike tactical bombers, fighter-bombers and attack aircraft which are used in air interdiction operations to attack enemy combatants and military equipment, strategic bombers are designed to fly into enemy territory to destroy strategic targets such as major infrastructure, logistics establishments, military installations, factories and cities. Medium bombers were used in large numbers in WW II for strategic bombing, but they were not strategic aircraft. The real strategic bomber role appeared when atom bombs were first used during WW II. Nuclear strike missions to deliver nuclear-armed missiles or bombs can be carried out by most modern fighter-bombers and strike aircraft, even at intercontinental range, with the use of aerial refuelling. As such, any nation possessing this combination of equipment and techniques theoretically has such capability. Primary delivery aircraft for a modern strategic bombing mission need not always necessarily be a heavy bomber and any modern aircraft capable of nuclear strikes at long range, is equally able to carry out tactical missions with conventional weapons. The French were always prepared to use a fighter-bomber like the Mirage IV for a strategic nuclear strike role. In case of India, the Su-30 MKI, Mirage-2000, Jaguar and the Rafale – all have strategic nuclear delivery capability.
Tactical bombing is aerial bombing aimed at targets of immediate military value, such as combatants, military installations, or military equipment. A tactical bomber is intended primarily for tactical bombing, even though strategic bombers have been used in tactical bombing operations. Tactical bombing is invariably for more direct support to surface forces. Air interdiction, by contrast, strikes tactical targets that are distant from or otherwise not in contact with friendly units.
Aerial Bombing Evolves
Tactical bombing was the first type of aerial bombing mission. It began in WW I when pilots dropped small bombs over the side of their open cockpits onto enemy troops. During the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, the Royal Flying Corps dropped bombs on German rail communications. By the time of WW II, many specialised aircraft were developed, including various fighter-bombers. In the modern era, precision-guided munitions (smart bombs) can be delivered with extreme accuracy.
Initial Strategic Bombing
The first strategic bombing took place during WW I (1914–1918), by the Russians with their Sikorsky Ilya Muromets bomber (the first heavy four-engine aircraft), and by the Germans using Zeppelins or long-range multi-engine Gotha aircraft. Zeppelins reached England on bombing raids by 1915, forcing the British to create extensive defence systems including some of the first anti-aircraft guns which were often used with searchlights to locate the enemy aircraft overhead. Late in the war, American fliers, under the command of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, were carrying out multi-aircraft “mass” bombing missions behind German lines.
Study of strategic bombing continued in the inter-war years. British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told the House of Commons early in the 1930s that “the bomber will always get through no matter what defensive systems were deployed”. It was widely believed by the late 1930s that strategic “terror” bombing of cities in any war would quickly result in devastating losses and might decide a conflict in a matter of days or weeks. But theory far exceeded what most air forces could actually put into the air. While Germany focused on short-range tactical bombers, Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) began developing four-engine long-range bombers in the late 1930s. The US Army Air Corps was severely limited by small budgets in the late 1930s and only barely saved the B-17 bomber that would soon be vital. The equally important B-24 first flew in 1939. Both aircraft would constitute the bulk of the American bomber force that made the Allied daylight bombing of Nazi Germany possible in 1943-1945.
The RAF concentrated its efforts on night bombing; but neither force had good bombsights for “pinpoint” accuracy. The Germans used medium bombers such as the Heinkel He-111, He-177A, and the Junkers Ju-88A. Only post WW II, the overall notion of strategic bombing and attempts to create “smart bombs” began.
Post WW II – The Heavy Bomber
Around end of the WW II, the “heavy” bomber, was epitomized by the British Avro Lancaster and the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress used in the Pacific Theatre, for area bombing of Japanese cities. The US 20th Air Force, based in the Mariana Islands, undertook low-level incendiary bombing missions, results of which were soon measured in the number of square miles of territory destroyed. The air raids on Japan had withered the nation’s ability to continue fighting, although the Japanese government delayed surrender resulting in the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 by B-29 Superfortress bombers.
The Cold War Strategic Bombers
During the Cold War, the US and United Kingdom on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other kept strategic bombers ready to takeoff on short notice as part of the deterrent strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Most strategic bombers of the two superpowers were designed to deliver nuclear weapons. For a time, some squadrons of Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers were kept in the air round-the-clock, orbiting some distance away from their fail-safe points near the Soviet border. The British produced three types of “V bombers” for nuclear delivery. These bombers could reach up to cities like Kiev or Moscow. Two types of V bombers, the Avro Vulcan and the Handley Page Victor were used in the Falklands War towards the end of their operational lives.
The Soviet Union produced hundreds of unlicensed, reverse-engineered copies of the American Boeing B-29 Superfortress, called the Tupolev Tu-4. The Soviets later developed the jet-powered Tupolev Tu-16 “Badger”. The People’s Republic of China produced a version of Tupolev Tu-16 on license from the Soviet Union in the 1960s, which they named the Xian H-6.
Current Major Strategic Bombers
Newer strategic bombers such as the Rockwell International B-1B Lancer, the Tupolev Tu-160 and the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit designs incorporate various levels of stealth technology to avoid detection, especially by radar networks. Despite these advances, earlier strategic bombers, for example the B-52 (last produced in 1962) or the Tupolev Tu-95 remain in service and can also deploy the latest air-launched cruise missiles and other “stand-off” or precision guided weapons such as the JASSM and the JDAM. The Russian Air Force’s new Tu-160 strategic bombers are still expected to be produced for 10 to 20 years. In addition, the current Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers will be periodically updated, as was done during the 1990s with the Tu-22M bombers. All these strategic bombers are primarily designed to carry nuclear weapons but are often used for non-nuclear, high explosive weapons. During the Vietnam War, Operation Menu (covert tactical bombing of Cambodia), Gulf War, military action in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, American B-52s and B-1s were employed mostly in tactical roles. During the Soviet-Afghan war in 1979 – 1988, Soviet Air Force’s Tu-22Ms carried out several mass air raids in Afghanistan.
Weapons loads can include nuclear-armed cruise missiles as well as aerial bombs. Typically, some of the older aircraft such as Boeing B-50 Superfortress would carry 13,000kg, Tupolev Tu-16 (9,000kg), and Tupolev Tu-95 (25,000kg); the much bigger, eight-engine Boeing B-52 Stratofortress carries 32,000 kg. Among the supersonic bombers are the Rockwell B-1 Lancer with six external hard-points of ordnance with a capacity of 23,000 kg and the Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire with 24,000 kg. The PLAAF’s Xian H-6, like its original Tu-16, can carry max 9,000 kg or six or seven KD-88 cruise missile (anti-ship or air-to-surface). Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack carries 45,000 kg of ordnance. This includes two internal rotary launchers each holding 6x Raduga Kh-55SM/101/102/555 cruise missiles or 12x AS-16 Kickback short-range nuclear missiles. The Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, also known as the Stealth Bomber, is an American heavy strategic bomber, featuring low observable stealth technology designed for penetrating dense anti-aircraft defences. It is a flying-wing design with a crew of two. The B-2 is capable of all-altitude attack missions up to 50,000 feet with a range of over 11,000 km on internal fuel and over 19,000 km with one mid-air refuelling. Two internal bays for ordnance and payload with a maximum estimated limit is 23,000 kg.
Next Generation Strategic Bombers
American Northrop Grumman B-21 is an under-development stealth bomber to replace a part or all of the current fleet of B-2 and B-1 aircraft. Planned to be deployed in the early 2020s, and named by the targeted year 2037, the Bomber will be a stealthy, supersonic, long-range, heavy-payload and strategic bomber project to replace the B-52 Stratofortress, with a deployment time frame goal of 2037. Xian H-20 is a Chinese under-development stealth bomber. The Tupolev PAK DA codename “Poslannik” is a next-generation stealth strategic bomber being developed for the Russian Air Force. It will eventually replace the older Tupolev Tu-95.Three PAK DA prototypes are expected to be ready for preliminary testing by April 2023, with the state tests to begin in February 2026. The aircraft is expected to enter serial production in 2027. The subsonic PAK DA would have 12,000 km operational range, and 30-hour endurance, and carry payloads up to 30 tonne.
Xian H-20 Subsonic Stealth Bomber
The Chinese Xian H-20 is projected to be a subsonic stealth bomber for the PLAAF and is referred to as a strategic project. The aircraft looks similar to the American B-2 Spirit, as well as the projected Russian PAK DA and will carry nuclear weapons. It may enter service around 2025. China wants a strategic bomber capable of striking targets beyond the second island chain without aerial refuelling, while carrying a payload of at least ten tonne. This long-range bomber could have a range of around 12,000 km and carry 20 tonne of payload.
PLAAF’s H-6 Multiple Variants
The Xian H-6 is a version of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 twin-engine jet bomber license-built for the PLAAF. Delivery of the Tu-16 to China began in 1958, and the Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation signed a licence production agreement with the USSR to build the type in the late 1950s. The first H-6 flew in 1959. Around 180 were built by the 1990s. China is estimated to be currently operating around 120 of these aircraft. The latest version is the H-6N, a re-designed version capable of aerial refuelling and carrying air-launched cruise missiles. According to the US Department of Defence, this will give the PLAAF a long-range stand-off offensive air capability with precision-guided munitions.
The H-6 was used to drop nine nuclear devices at the Lop Nur test site. However, with the increased development in ballistic missile technology, the nuclear delivery capabilities of the H-6 diminished in importance. Later, the H-6 moved over to a dual nuclear/conventional bombing role. The H-6 was the base aircraft for the H-6A the nuclear bomber; H-6B was the reconnaissance variant; H-6C – the conventional bomber and H-6E – the nuclear bomber with improved countermeasures; and the H-6D anti-ship missile carrier. The HY-6 series are capable of acting as an aerial tanker. Many H-6A and H-6C aircraft were updated in the 1990s to the H-6F configuration, the main improvement being a modern navigation system, with a Global Positioning System satellite constellation receiver, Doppler navigation radar and inertial navigation system. New production began in the 1990s as well, with Xian building the H-6G, which acts as a director for ground-launched cruise missiles. The H-6H carries two land-attack cruise missiles. It is believed that the CJ-10 is the main land attack missile for H-6 bombers. The H-6M cruise missile carrier has four pylons for improved cruise missiles and is fitted with a terrain-following system. Apparently, these variants have no internal bomb bay, and most or all of their defensive armament has been deleted.
The H-6K – Upgraded Strategic Variant
The H-6K, first flew on January 05, 2007, entered service in October 2009 and made China the fourth country with a strategic bomber after US, Russia and the United Kingdom. The variant has reinforced structure with of composite materials, enlarged engine inlets for Russian Soloviev D-30 turbofan engines giving a claimed combat radius of 3,500 kilometres, a glass cockpit with large size LCD multi-function display, and a re-worked nose section eliminating the glazed navigator’s station in favour of a more powerful radar. The H-6K is a significantly more modern aircraft than earlier versions. Six under-wing hard-points for CJ-10A cruise missiles are added. The rear 23 mm guns and gunner position are replaced by electronic components.
The H-6K, that has nuclear strike capability, is designed for long-range stand-off attacks. It is capable of attacking carrier battle groups and priority targets in Asia. While previous models had limited missile capability, the H-6K can carry up to six YJ-12 ALCMs. A single regiment of 18 H-6Ks fully loaded with YJ-12s, can saturate enemy ships with over 100 supersonic missiles. Although the aircraft has a new nose radome housing a modern air-to-ground radar, it is not clear if the bomber or other Chinese assets yet have the capability to collect accurate targeting information for successful strikes beyond a certain range into the sea. An electro-optical targeting system is fitted under the nose. In January 2009, it was reported that an indigenous turbofan engine, the WS-18 (Soloviev D-30 copy), was under development for use in the H-6K. In 2015, about 15 H-6Ks were in service. The H-6K fitted with a refuelling probe was reportedly first flown in December 2016. Besides extending range, a possible mission for the variant may be to launch satellites or ballistic missiles. China is developing two new air-launched ballistic missiles, (CH-AS-X-13) one of which can carry a nuclear warhead. The H-6K would be suited to launch such missiles.
In January 2019, China announced that it had tested an analogous version of the American “Mother of all Bombs”. The weapon is carried by an H-6K and takes up the whole of the bomb bay. It is roughly six metres long and weighs ten tonne. Chinese media claimed it could be used for destroying reinforced buildings and shelters as well as clearing obstacles to create an aircraft landing zone.
India’s Initial Bombers
India operated three squadrons of vintage American heavy bomber B-24 liberators which were left behind by the British when they left India. Liberators were heavy strategic bombers of its time used extensively in WW II. They were in service with the Indian Air Force (IAF) till 1968. During the extended negotiations between Britain and India in the 1950s, the Soviet Union had offered the Ilyushin IL-28. However, in January 1957, India placed orders for the English Electric Canberra 54 B (I). 58 bombers, eight PR.57 photo-reconnaissance aircraft and six T.4 training aircraft were procured initially and more were purchased later. The Canberras played a significant reconnaissance role in 1962 and were operationally used in the Indo-Pakistani wars. The Canberra was the backbone of the IAF for bombing raids and photo-reconnaissance for several decades. The fleet was retired after 50 years of service, on May 11, 2007. For some reason, the IAF never replaced the Canberra and preferred fighter-bombers instead.
Can India Exploit the Vulnerabilities of H-6?
Any conflict between India and China is likely to be conventional. The H-6 is a subsonic bomber with a large Radar Cross-Section making it vulnerable to both airborne and ground-based AD weapons. Supported by its EW system, the H-6K could jam Indian radars for penetration. Some defence analysts feel that positioning of the H-6 bombers in the region is mainly for exerting psychological pressure on India which does not have a strategic bomber. Shooting down of even a single bomber would seriously dent the morale of the PLAAF. India must thus use both airborne and ground-based platforms to shoot one down.
Does IAF Miss a Bomber?
In 1962, during the Sino-Indian War, India had 22 Squadrons comprising Western fighter-bomber aircraft such as the Hunters, Gnats, Mysteres, Toofanis, Vampires and Canberras. All were relatively better than the Chinese MiG-15, MiG-17, Mig-19 and IL-28 bombers, but the IAF was not used in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Historians tell us that one reason for this was that Indian political leaders were scared that if air power was used offensively, Chinese IL-28 bombers could attack Indian cities such as Kolkata and Guwahati. Against Pakistan, India has used even the An-12 and the An-32 in bombing role. This indicates that the IAF misses a bomber.
A significant part of China is out of range of Indian fighter bombers. Aerial refuelling is not possible over enemy territory. Chinese bombers can reach much deeper inside India. The three major powers continue to develop future bombers. China will have a stealth bomber in the near future. Larger bombers have greater real-estate onboard and will have greater power resource for both electronic warfare and to deploy Directed Energy Weapons. A bomber can help India take the war deeper into enemy territory. It can be a bigger deterrent. Can India’s fighter-bombers, surface-to-surface missiles and cruise missiles stand-in for bombers, remains a moot question. If it was true, then the major powers need not develop bombers. Also, both India and China are large countries. Therefore, it may be of interest for India to have a bomber of its own. The bombers will carry a large complement of cruise missiles, both for land attack and anti-shipping roles. They will be a great asset for dominance of the Indian Ocean Region. One can expect India and China to maintain adversarial relations for some time to come. China will continue to use surplus resources to befriend India’s neighbours. A strategic bomber would be a significant deterrent.
Possible Options for India
Chinese bombers would remain a real threat for India in decades to come. If India has to become a significant power in the long run, it must develop bombers that as a platform can combine more roles. The future is in Directed Energy Weapons. A bomber class aircraft will have greater potential. A bomber could also become a platform for launching small satellites. Currently, the IAF is down to 31 fighter squadrons. With current defence budgets, it could take nearly two decades and heavy investments to reach the authorised level of 42 squadrons. India would also need funds for the fifth-generation fighters. Modern bombers are costly to acquire and maintain. Yet major powers see the investment as important. The American bombers are likely to be very expensive. Some defence analysts have been suggesting acquiring or joining in the development of the Russian stealth bomber PAK-DA. The only other source would be the Americans. India will have to consider acquiring some strategic bombing assets, at least 20 of them, in the next decade. It is time to take a call.