While the Western media has been focusing a lot on China's sexiest new military toys -- stealth fighters, drones, ballistic missiles, and aircraft carriers -- we may have missed a relatively unsexy secret: the Chinese navy's supersonic bomber program. How is a supersonic bomber unglamorous? Because these "new" bombers, for which China is rumored to be developing a factory, are licensed copies of the Tupelov's 1970s-vintage Tu-22M Backfire nuclear bombers -- think of them as the Soviet Union's shorter-ranged version of the American B-1 Lancer. (The Backfire actually predates "the Bone," as the B-1 is called by its crews.)
Although nothing official has been reported from either Moscow or Beijing, Chinese web forums have been buzzing since early 2012 about the emergence of a Tu-22M3 production line. In late December, this Chinese site claimed that Western bloggers had revealed China's "secret" bomber program. Apparently, the aircraft will be built by Xi'an aircraft corporation in China -- with engines imported from Russia since the Chinese haven't yet mastered the difficult art of making high performance jet engines -- for use by the navy.
Why does a navy want supersonic heavy bombers?
It would use them as a fast-moving ship killer capable of carrying large anti-ship missiles. (A role that the Soviet, now Russian, navy has long used the Tu-22M for.) Such a weapon fits with the Chinese military's expanding purchases of weapons that appear designed to keep other nations -- especially the United States -- at bay. The Backfires would replace the Chinese navy's fleet of Xian H-6s -- a version of the Soviet Union Tu-16 Badger nuclear bomber. (Interestingly, the Badger at one point carried the KS-1 Komet anti-ship missile, which resembled a MiG-15 fighter jet carrying a warhead instead of a pilot. Who wants to make the killer drone reference?)
However, some are skeptical that China is really going to start building an old Soviet design that has been out of production for decades. This article quotes a Chinese military official who notes that the U.S. Navy's air defenses could spot Tu-22Ms coming from a long way off.
While the jets fit the anti-access philosophy and would allow the Chinese navy to "project power" throughout the Pacific, maintaining a strategic bomber force gets expensive quickly, explains Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the aviation consulting firm, the Teal Group.
"It would make sense, given China's strategy and power-projection ambitions, but one thing to consider is that building a long range bomber/maritime strike fleet isn't a standalone development," Aboulafia tells Killer Apps. "The up-front costs in terms of training, doctrine, and general fleet bed-down are very large. Even larger is the cost of support aircraft, particularly tankers, that would be useful, if not essential, in making these new bombers effective."
Such investments may be too much for a Chinese military that is buying a number of other, newer weapons systems that range from stealth fighters to anti satellite and cyber weapons.
"Unless the Chinese military budget grows at a near-breakneck pace, a development like this would likely impact other equipment procurement and systems development priorities, including ones that are less conventional and more asymmetric," said Aboulafia.
Even if China does build a few dozen Backfires, they may be more for show than anything else.
Tu-22Ms "might reflect a force that's being built more for posturing and diplomacy, and less for actual force application," said the analyst. "That too might make sense given where China seems to be headed."