The Air Forces of US President Joe Biden, China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin are engaged in a major technological competition, which puts at stake the deterrence capacity of each of the three countries against their potential enemies from the middle of the current decade.
Washington, Beijing and Moscow are vying with each other to add a fleet of new long-range strike bombers to their strategic aircraft fleet as soon as possible. The US Air Force's (USAF) is called the B-21 Raider, the Chinese is known as the H-20 and the Russian carries the nomenclature PAK DA. Their importance to air dominance is such that they spy on each other to learn each other's secrets.
All three models are transcontinental, subsonic in speed - they do not reach 1,235 km/h - and have the external shape of a flying wing, which is the general design of the US B-2 stealth bomber, in service since April 1997. The military and engineers working on each of the projects are trying to wrap each aircraft in a physical or imaginary protective layer of advanced technologies that will make them immune to the most sophisticated airspace surveillance radars.
As it turns out, stealth aircraft are those that have been designed to be very difficult, almost impossible, to detect. This is achieved with a structure and design capable of absorbing and deflecting electromagnetic radar signals, reducing the sound and infrared signature of the engines, applying special coatings and other measures that remain secret.
Ultimately, the aim in all three cases is for the bombers to be able to penetrate enemy territory undetected, deliver their lethal payload of hypersonic missiles - with speeds in excess of 5,000 km/h - ground-attack cruise or nuclear missiles. They can then return to their bases after evading fire from longer-range and more accurate anti-aircraft missiles, and avoid the new directed-energy weapons, mainly lasers.
Russia's Tupolev Design Bureau, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and the US mega-company Northrop Grumman - the latter headed by 51-year-old Kathy Warden - are charged by each administration with making the new bombers a reality. All are stamped "top secret", so much so that the existence of the B-21 programme was not revealed until the summer of 2015, when the USAF reported its existence and a few generalities.
The Department of Defence and powerful US industry set the tone for such aircraft, and the B-21 intercontinental bomber is the one at the most advanced stage of development. "There are five aircraft on the production line in Palmdale, California," said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall as recently as 20 September. But neither he nor anyone else has said anything about the aircraft's dimensions, weight, payload capacity, weapons and main features.
The 72-year-old Frank Kendall is a veteran engineer, lawyer and former US Army officer, where he served for 11 years before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. As a politician, he has held important positions in the Pentagon in the Republican Bush and Reagan administrations. He also served in that of Democrat Obama, who appointed him undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics, a post he held from 2011 to 2017. It was Kendall who in October 2015 selected Northrop Grumman as prime contractor for the B-21.
The maiden flight of the first demonstrator is scheduled for mid-2022, to be followed by air tests of one or two more aircraft. The USAF plans to procure a first batch of 20 aircraft starting in the mid-2020s, at a unit cost in the order of $600 million. But it has stated that its "minimum requirement" is for a hundred B-21s to replace its 62 B-1 Lancer variable-geometry bombers of the mid-1980s and, later, the 20 B-2 Spirit stealth bombers that have been in service since the late 1990s.
China is hard at work on the H-20, about which very little is known. Also wing-shaped, it is estimated to have a maximum take-off weight of 200 tonnes, a weapons-carrying capacity of 45 tonnes and a range of about 12,000 kilometres. If viable, it will be China's first stealth aircraft, i.e. invisible to electromagnetic emissions from radar and other more advanced detection systems.
It is only a few weeks ago - on 6 September - that Xi Jinping placed 54-year-old General Chang Dingqiu, until then deputy chief of the Air Force, at the head of his military aviation. With extensive experience in operations in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combat air units, General Chang Dingqiu replaces General Ding Laihang, who took command of the Chinese Air Force in 2017, when he was nearly 60 years old.
The trust placed by Xi Jinping in the experienced fighter pilot - with more than 2,500 flying hours - is for him to take the aviation reins and be able to create by mid-century a strategic Air Force with global reach, which is the most outdated branch of Beijing's powerful military arsenal. China's main strategic airlifter since the 1970s is the aging twin-engine H-16 bomber, a domestic platform built under licence from the Russian Tupolev Tu-16. Different batches have been upgraded over the years with new engines (H-16K), to fire cruise missiles (H-16H) and to launch ballistic missiles (H-16N) but its replacement is urgent.
In view of Washington and Beijing's initiatives, Vladimir Putin and the Moscow authorities do not want to be left behind and aspire to equip themselves for the first time with a subsonic bomber with stealth technology. Their bid is called the PAK DA, the name given to it in the West, which, at least on the surface, is the most delayed of the three projects. It is expected to have a range of more than 12,000 kilometres and the ability to carry precision-guided bombs, hypersonic and nuclear missiles up to a total weight of 30 tonnes.
The limited information on its status comes from Russian sources, who say that the Tupolev Design Bureau is working on three prototypes, but that they will not be ready for initial testing "until at least 2023". This would be followed by more extensive testing three years later, which, if successful, would mean entry into production in 2027 at the earliest. The Russian air force is piloted by General Sergei Dronov, 59, who has a large fleet of strategic bombers of different models and ages.
The Tupolev Tu-160 supersonic four-engine variable-wing bomber provides hostile penetration and heavy nuclear air strike capability. It is a large aircraft, in service since the mid-2000s, of which Russia has 16 in various configurations and states of maintenance. But the most numerous model is the veteran Tupolev Tu-95 turboprop four-engine turboprop, a 1950s design whose last examples were produced in the mid-1990s and which is crying out to be replaced.