TAIPEI — China’s future bomber aircraft requirements appear murky as Western analysts — stuck with reading tea leaves in an opaque pond — battle over what it all means.
Specifically, there are unconfirmed reports that China and Russia are working on deals that include refurbished Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range strategic bombers and Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bombers.
What analysts do know is that China’s military is upgrading its Xian H-6 medium-range bomber, a licensed variant of the Tu-16. The upgrade, known as the H-6K, includes a re-engineered Russian NPO Saturn D-30KP turbofan engine, larger air intakes, die-electric nose radome and a redesigned flight deck. The engines boost its range to 3,500 kilometers and allow it to carry both land-attack cruise missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles.
Richard Fisher, a senior fellow of Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said China has begun outfitting the H-6K with a new supersonic, 400-kilometer-range anti-ship missile, YJ-12 Eagle Strike, which also might be outfitted on the Xian JH-7 Flying Leopard fighter-bomber and Shenyang J-11 fighters.
Fisher said he does not believe recent reports out of China that Russia may sell refurbished Tu-22M3s to China. China chose to upgrade the H-6 over offers to buy the Tu-22M3 over a decade ago, he said.
China is also developing a stealthier variant of the JH-7 fighter-bomber and reportedly developing a copy of the Russian Su-34 strike bomber, dubbed the J-17, Fisher said, “all of which would tend to deny funds for a purchase of Su-34s” from Russia.
However, “if they are willing to sell the Amur conventional submarine, Su-35 fighter and S-400 surface-to-air missiles, it would follow that they would add the Su-34 strike bomber to that list,” he said.
The J-17 was first revealed to the public at the 1998 Zhuhai Airshow. A video depicting a stealthy Su-34 variant undergoing wind tunnel testing was shown to attendees, but no other information was released until 2008, via Chinese-language defense blogs. Still, neither the Chinese government nor industry has confirmed that such a plane is in production or being studied.
Vasily Kashin, a researcher with Moscow’s Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said the Tu-22M3 deal is “highly unlikely” and that the same set of rumors has emerged sporadically over the past 10 years.
“The fact is that the Tu-22M3 production line was shut down some 20 years ago” and “resumption of their production is technically possible but would be a huge project requiring billions of dollars of new investments and extensive research.” Kashin compared it to the U.S. restarting production of the B-1B Lancer bomber or F-111 Aardvark fighter-bomber.
However, Russia does have about 50 Tu-22M3 bombers no longer needed by the Air Force that could “technically” be offered to the Chinese for “experimenting/research,” Kashin said, but “any significant deals are unlikely.”
Dean Cheng, a China specialist at the Heritage Foundation, said that another reason the Tu-22M3 would be of little interest to China is that the JH-7 fighter-bomber has characteristics and payload comparable to the Tu-22M3 and a “far smaller radar cross section.”
If anything, Cheng said, the Chinese might be more interested in procuring the Russian Raduga KSR-5 (AS-6 Kingfish) air-launched cruise missile and anti-ship missile, carried by older Tu-16 Badger bombers.
“I’d venture that the AS-6 Kingfish might be of greater interest than the Tu-22 airframe, much as the Chinese supposedly bought the Sovremenny destroyers because it was the only way the Russians would sell [anti-ship] SS-N-22 Sunburns to them,” Cheng said.
The Russians have been marketing the Su-34 fighter-bomber to China, Kashin said. “Su-34 bombers are described as being able to take a major part of Tu-22 functions,” but “cheaper, smaller and more advanced.”
Russia’s United Aircraft Corp. displayed an Su-34 model during the 2012 Zhuhai Airshow, Kashin said.
“The aircraft has a significant advantage — it was battle-proven in the 2008 war against Georgia, when it was tasked with suppressing Georgian air defense,” he said. “The use of anti-radiation missiles and a jamming system was successful — the aircraft destroyed a key Georgian radar and suppressed some of the [surface-to-air missile] systems.”
Kashin said the Su-34 has clear advantages over the JH-7, including longer range, more powerful electronic countermeasures, a wider range of weapons, advanced radar and good crew accommodations.
There is some criticism in Russia of the Su-34. For example, some in Russia believe that the heavy armor protection of the Su-34’s cockpit is unnecessary for an aircraft flying at high altitudes, he said.
“It is in the early stages of serial production still, and there are many minor technical difficulties with these aircraft from time to time, but generally it is going smoothly,” Kashin said. “I think that the Chinese might be interested in acquiring some Su-34s and using them primarily for [suppression of enemy air defense] missions, plus reverse engineering and using some components on domestic strike aircraft.”