Days after a high-ranking Pentagon official announced this week that the production of the B-21 Raider has started, the Chinese state media mouthpiece has expressed skepticism over the hasty decision and wrote it off as “US obsession with containing China.”
“In a move experts said on Monday reflects the US’ obsession with containing China and risks backfiring, the US recently reportedly started production for the B-21 bomber, which made its first flight only two months ago,” wrote Chinese Global Times.
The Air Force’s goal is to field a fleet of at least 100 B-21 Raiders, the first of which is expected to go into service in the middle of the 2020s. The B-21 Raider will be wholly integrated into the fleet by the 2030s, replacing the outdated B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit.
This will complete the intended fleet of two bombers, which consists of 76 modernized B-52J Stratofortresses.
However, when the announcement was made, some Western media outlets cited analysts to emphasize that the development of the B-21 and the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative demonstrate the US’s commitment to competing with China as a significant power.
As with its predecessor, the B-2, the B-21 emphasizes stealth. However, multiple Chinese military experts said that to reduce production and maintenance costs, the B-21’s size, payload capacity, and range are being reduced to enable mass production.
The B-21 is an open structure, which means that it can supposedly be upgraded as it develops, which is why low-rate production can start just two months after the first flight.
With mass numbers, B-21s can be deployed in distributed operations, making them less likely to be wiped out on the ground and more likely to launch surprise attacks in guerrilla warfare-like missions.
However, despite the jubilation and optimism in the United States, Chinese military analysts questioned the expedited production, pointing out that the demonstrator and prototype phases often take years to complete before production begins.
On Monday, a Chinese military expert who asked to remain anonymous said that even with new manufacturing technology, such a reckless move could result in numerous unanticipated technical problems that would only drag down the project.
Taking a higher moral ground against the US, Chinese analysts said that while Beijing has no interest in engaging in an arms race with the US, it will strengthen its defenses to protect its territory.
This will involve creating “shields” like sophisticated anti-stealth radar systems, ground-to-air missiles, fighters, interceptors for air superiority, and “spears” that can target airfields from which enemy aircraft take off.
The manufacturer of the B-21, Northrop Grumman, has previously disclosed a nearly US$1.6 billion pre-tax charge on the B-21 Raider program in the final quarter of 2023: higher-than-expected production costs and disruptions in the macroeconomic environment brought on this charge.
In addition, China’s aviation sector has often hinted at the creation of a stealth bomber that is purportedly designated the H-20—EurAsian Times previously reported that there Beijing was dropping subtle hints and was gearing up to conduct a flight test of its upcoming H-20 Bomber.
Zhang Xuefeng, a Chinese military specialist quoted by Global Times, said China can reach enemy airfields with its bombers, including ones like the B-21, in addition to precision strike cruise and ballistic missiles.
It is believed that if the H-20 can spread its reach past the first Island Chain off the coast of China, it might threaten regions of the South China Sea, Japan, the Philippines, and Guam, a US territory. The H-20 could threaten Hawaii or possibly portions of the US mainland if it were to be expanded with a refueler.
As early as 2018 and 2019, the Pentagon’s “China Military Power Report” stated that China’s new H-20 long-range stealth bomber, which is anticipated to have an 8,500km operational range, would potentially pose paradigm-shifting threats. This would put important, inaccessible parts of the US at risk in novel ways.
There are no hints of China fielding its own H-20 stealth bomber shortly. In contrast, the fact that US B-21 has entered production means that the bomber will be deployed soon.
Chinese military aviation specialist Andreas Rupprecht told EurAsian Times, “All current US war-planning and procurement is aimed against China, and the B-21 is one major asset in these considerations.”
When asked about China’s suspicion of low-rate production, Andreas said, “It is a bit misleading since they haven’t started full serial production yet, but I’m pretty sure much has already been tested otherwise, so that LRIP is a logical step to get as many bombers as possible for tests and since no major hiccups are to be expected.”
“Delays will surely happen due to budget issues and political stuff, but I don’t expect serious technical ones.”
US B-21 To Challenge China
Western military analysts have positioned the B-21 bomber as a challenger to China in a potential military conflict. The bomber is thought to be essential for breaking through enemy radars and air defenses through stealth and electronic jamming.
This is one of the key reasons why the US goal has been to ensure that the program avoids suffering the same fate as other expensive projects like the F-35 in terms of cost overruns and delays. The urgency of the weapon is high as assessments of a possible military clash with China or Russia have been consistently higher.
The Raider is slated to play a pivotal role in America’s nuclear deterrent triad for the foreseeable future while also possessing the capability to perform conventional strikes and serve in various other functions.
The B-21 Raider would aim to break through China’s impenetrable anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) shield and begin ground strikes to take out sensitive targets in case of a conflict.
China possesses an extensive and varied air defense system, a highly developed air force equipped with operational stealth aircraft, and long-range anti-land and anti-ship missiles capable of preventing the US Navy fleet from approaching.
In addition to the missiles, a second line of defense consisting of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) would be in place to destroy and submerge anything that passes through the A2/AD bubble. The Air Force, Navy, Missiles—and the alleged intercontinental range drones could mount a joint defense if necessary.
EurAsian Times analyzed this option now available to the Chinese military as a ‘defensive offense’ from the ‘offensive defense’ it employs. Analysts also call the latter China’s ‘active defense’ doctrine.
In other words, China is supposed to be both “tactically offensive” and “strategically defensive” or to “maintain offensive actions at operational and tactical levels while retaining a defensive posture at the strategic level.”
According to reports, the B-21 would “bust through and break down this strategy to destroy critical enemy installations, command and control, and radar centers.” The GBU-57 bunker-destroying bomb, the GBU-31 JDAM satellite-guided bomb, and the JASSM-ER cruise missile are anticipated to be among the numerous and varied bombs and missiles carried by the B-21. It can take off, fly back, and drop munitions on targets in China.
However, China’s J-20 “Mighty Dragon” or anti-stealth YLC-8E radar, along with the stealth fighter’s advanced sensor fusion, data processing, and “intelligentized warfare,” will likely track it.
However, despite China’s advantage, Beijing is quite concerned about the B-21, and Chinese military strategists are apprehensive that the US would win big in terms of propaganda. China’s claim to be a technological adversary of the United States will be undermined even by a strategically significant success for the B-21.
The aircraft entering low-rate production seems to have thrown US adversaries off. For the United States, it is a giant leap forward as it prepares for a conflict with China, which is never off the table, especially as tensions continue to mount over the East and South China Seas.
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