China is developing a next-generation strategic bomber, the People's Liberation Army Air Force's top commander officially confirmed on Thursday.
General Ma Xiaotian said the new aircraft would enhance the PLA Air Force's long-range strike capability, with even greater strides to come.
"We are now developing a next generation, long-range strike bomber that you will see sometime in the future," he told reporters in Changchun, Jilin province, at a PLA Air Force open day.
Despite not disclosing further details, Ma's confirmation puts an end to years of speculation on whether China would develop a new aircraft to replace its half century-old H-6 bomber series.
The new long-range bomber will likely be a stealth aircraft, Chinese military affairs expert Yin Zhuo told the Global Times. This bomber may also have supersonic flight capabilities. Both stealth and supersonic flight are necessary if China hopes to compete with its key strategic rivals, the U.S. in particular.
Military expert Du Wenlong in an interview with CCTV "Asia Today" four months ago, said that China had basic conditions of development of a new generation of strategic bombers, breakthrough in stealth technology, and also very fast development of a variety of precision-guided bombs. Our development of a new strategic bomber must be at high starting point, he believes, being provided with the strong penetration capability and stealth performance.
Over the past several years, researchers from the PLA have shared their thoughts about what capabilities a new Chinese bomber could have, but none was able to confirm whether such a project exists.
According to a June 2015 report by Kanwa Defense Review, a Canada-based publication focusing on defense technology, officers attending a meeting held by the PLA Air Force last year urged the military to start the development of a next-generation long-range strategic bomber.
Currently, the PLA Air Force only has an unknown number of H-6 bombers, which were developed based on the Soviet-era Tu-16 Badger that was designed in the 1950s and retired by Russia in the early 1990s. The recently upgraded H-6K strategic bomber, equipped with the DH-20 land-attack cruise missile, was revealed to the public last year. It's a major leap forward for China’s nuclear and conventional cruise missile strike capability. Only Russia and the US are currently able to launch cruise missiles from the air.
US Strategic Air Command has the Boeing B-52, Rockwell B-1 and the Northrop Grumman B-2 Stealth Bomber, while Russia's Long Range Aviation Command has the Tupolev Tu-160, Tu-95 and T-22M.