Stealth shakes up China-US high-tech battle

Beijing has weaponized technology theft to steal top-secret data to threaten US power

China has taken stealth technology to a new level when it comes to modernizing its military.

As the world’s second-largest economy upgraded its industrial base, it copied, reversed engineered, and even stole high-tech blueprints to compensate for holes in its research and development program.

Beijing closed the gap with advanced nations in sectors as devise as smartphones and smart weapons by using all three tactics – particularly against its arch-rival the United States.   

“China’s use of espionage to snap up military innovations that reflect billions of dollars in research funding [has become] problematic. Examples of weaponry believed to have been fueled by US plans include the Chinese versions of the F-22, F-35 and the C-17 transport plane,” the Washington Post reported earlier this year.

At times it resembles an epidemic, sifting through top-secret information by stealth. 

“So long as they continue to do that, the playing field will always favor the Chinese. They’re getting away with as much as they can, because, frankly, the pushback has been weak,” one defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the Washington Post.

Stealth bombers

US Defense Intelligence Agency report (DIA) has since highlighted that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is now developing not one, but two stealth bombers, including the H-20, Mark Episkopos of National Interest reported. Both bear a remarkable resemblance to America’s state-of-the-art Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit.

“Although stealing foreign military technology could be seen by some as a strategic weakness, China skips expensive and time-consuming R&D,” Popular Mechanics reported.

Nowhere is this fast-and-loose theft more apparent than in the PLAAF. 

Like the US, China deploys aircraft with a broad range of capabilities. But unlike the US most of the PLA planes are based on plans purchased or stolen from their adversaries.

China’s H-20 bomber has stealth capabilities. Image: Screenshot

According to a report, by the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School, China’s cyber espionage activities represent a significant threat to the American military and the safety and security of the nation.

Defense contractors, research institutes, and universities have all failed to adequately secure their computer networks, allowing China to steal R&D pertaining to some of America’s most important military secrets. 

Hundreds of billions of dollars a year are reportedly lost through high-tech theft. This leads us back to the H-20, a long-distance flying wing stealth bomber with a robust electronic countermeasures package and sensor fusion integration.

As with its US B-21 Raider and Russian PAK-DA counterparts, China’s next-generation aircraft will prioritize stealth performance and deep penetration capabilities over raw speed and maneuverability. 

Indeed, the H-20 is set to drastically expand China’s threat capabilities against its US adversary. “[The new bomber] will be able to strike targets a long distance away, perhaps in the second island chain and beyond,” military expert Jon Grevatt explained to the South China Morning Post.

Mysterious JH-XX

“That means it would threaten US assets and interests in the Asia-Pacific. If the aircraft becomes operational, it has the potential to be a game-changer,” he added.

Even more fascinating, is the mysterious JH-XX project. Described by the US Defense Intelligence Agency report as a “fighter-bomber,” it is the tactical counterpart to the H-20.

It is widely speculated that the new age warplane is the early concept bomber depicted on the May 2018 cover of the prolific Chinese defense magazine Aerospace Knowledge, brought to the attention of Western audiences by China Defense Blog, Episkopos reported.

If true, these images depict a conventionally designed, super-maneuverable, supersonic bomber with an internal weapons bay. Several aspects of the JH-XX’s design, including the jagged air intakes and the way the twin-engine nozzles are embedded in the tail, suggest stealth performance.

But the aircraft seeks to balance those features against speed and limited dogfighting abilities by carrying anti-air missiles. The  PL-15E, a Chinese long-range missile with a host of best-in-class features, is an ideal candidate for this type of aircraft.

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Beyond visual range, air-to-air missiles are used by fighters to knock out enemy aircraft and drones. More importantly, Pentagon military planners have pointed out that the JH-XX will also boast a more modest combat radius of around 2,000 kilometers as opposed to the H-20’s 5,000 km.

This, they argue, will make it a supersonic bomber that doubles as a stealthy, long-distance interceptor. With its blend of anti-ship and anti-air capabilities, China’s latest fighter seems tailor-made for countering American Carrier Battle Groups, Episkopos stressed.

The JH-XX will therefore play a clear role in China’s Pacific strategy as Beijing strengthens its grip over the first island chain off China’s east coast. It will also pose a credible deterrent to an outside force seeking to intervene in a PLA Navy invasion of Taiwan.

Together with the H-20, the JH-XX could also boost China’s long-term goal of contesting the second island chain by menacing the US base on Guam.

Watchful eye

Thinking even further ahead, US forces in Africa are keeping a watchful eye, worried about Beijing establishing a network of naval bases across the continent – a threat that is setting off alarm bells at the Pentagon, Voice of America reported.

Classified US intelligence reports revealed that China intends to establish its first permanent military presence on the Atlantic Ocean in the Central African country of Equatorial Guinea.

“We know the Chinese desire a network of bases around the globe. My concern is the greatest along the Atlantic coast of Africa,” General Stephen Townsend, the head of US Africa Command, told lawmakers in April.

The big question is whether China would base its fleet of stealth bombers at any of those potential military sites. That would be upping the ante, but then again, Washington is pushing Beijing hard in its own backyard, the South China Sea.

So, what would stop President Xi Jinping and his ruling Communist Party from taking that next step? According to sources, the H-20 is on the verge of being formally announced and is planned to enter service in the PLAAF by the mid-2020s.

As for the JH-XX, mystery surrounds a timeline. It may not even be in active development. It could just be a concept plane. Then again, China likes surprises.