H-20 bomber (with H-X, JH-XX)


Bombers gives the other side a lot more time to reconsider his options, under larger pressure.
Knowing there are bombers that may be carrying live nukes loitering just outside your airspace will simply feel different.


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Is there something that a long range intercontinental bomber can do that a ballistic missile cannot?

Conventional strike.

Bombers are also flexible. While strategic bombers haven't been viable as means of strategic nuclear delivery since 1960s they can still perform a strategic level mission with tactical nuclear weapons e.g. against an enemy naval base in the region. They can also credibly threaten the opponent while not performing the strike itself and do so at lower cost and much lower escalation risk than missile equivalents. Missiles have such short reaction time that there is no "negotiation" period with them.

In such conditions the bomber becomes a reusable and manageable "first stage" for a tactical warhead which can play an important role in deterrence by adding a crucial intermediate stage to escalation models. That intermediate step is very relevant for both US and China since launching a missile at such ranges potentially triggers another level of escalation. This is also why HGVs are so important, because they can be launched in a manner that visibly differs from ICBMs and doesn't trigger strategic nuclear response. With HGV you can threaten a precision strike that doesn't involve MAD which is counter-intuitively de-escalatory (I won't go into details here as to why).

In that mission the bomber can be also replaced by naval vessels carrying tactical warheads, however it retains the advantage of much greater speed which means global reaction time measured in hours rather than days. The only problem here is that unless the bomber has to fly over high-threat areas it doesn't need to be VLO, or even a dedicated bomber at all.

Strategic bombers are a product of a very narrow window between mid 1940s and mid 1960s when nuclear weapons were available but not rocketry of sufficient capability to build an ICBM. In that period Cold War rivalry was sufficiently intense that huge fleets of bombers were being built - first in the US as part of the "first offset" and then consequently in the USSR.

nuclear stockpiles (Wiki):

By the time ICBMs become the preferred method of delivery in early 60s US has ~20k warheads and USSR close to ~2k. Something had to carry them and if we remember that we're talking about strategic deterrent it had to be a lot of something to make mass strikes possible. An entire parallel military comes to existence to perform that mission.

UK developed the V bomber fleet (Vulture, Valiant, Victor) in the 1950s as its primary nuclear deterrent only to have them made obsolete by US' cancellation of Skybolt ALBM programme. Only then Royal Navy acquired Polaris SLBMs and Resolution-class SSBNs were built because by then UK had no resources to develop its own strategic-capable nuclear ALBM.

France built its supersonic Mirage IV bomber specifically to deliver gravity bombs, and later (80s) missiles with tactical warheads.

China has stagnated at H-6 level for many reasons of economic nature, but primarily because there was no reason to develop a more capable bomber fleet. China develops nuclear weapons in the ICBM era and correctly goes straight for DF-4. Note dates of entry into PLA service: D-4 in 1975 and H-6 in 1969 (Tu-16 in 1958?).

US and USSR are left with large established bomber fleets which by that time have institutional power of their own so mission is found for them, and in truth it's not that difficult. But that mission is changed to tactical nuclear delivery, tactical nuclear delivery against maritime targets and finally to conventional strike after 1991. These bomber fleets only exist because of institutional and doctrinal inertia not because there's actual need for so many.

B-2 was built in minimum number that allowed for the concept to be tested in practice and doctrine to be developed.

B-1 was only built because Reagan was throwing money at defense contractors who were part of his donor base. It was obsolete when it entered into service and ever since was hampered by low readiness, high failure rate and high operating costs while having no real mission. USAF literally had it flown over Afghanistan and later paid for some fluff in the media to justify its continued service.

B-52 was cut down to 10-15% of its original fleet and flies thanks to cannibalisation.

Russian bombers keep flying through cannibalisation as well. Restarting Tu-160 production is a pointless money grab by Tupolev. I wrote once on how much more practical it would be for Russia to invest in more comprehensive modernisation of Tu-95 largely based on the sound logic of H-6 or B-52 flying as a pragmatic measure. But Russia can be either stronk or smart and it clearly prefers being stronk.

So to sum it all up. There's plenty of very good reasons for why bombers are going to remain useful. But those reasons may not agree with the particular types of bombers currently in service, because those are largely remnant of a bygone technological era that keep flying through institutional inertia. And that distinction is necessary for everyone who wants to consider the problem of future bombers and their use..

And note that estimated MTOW of a B-21 is half of B-2's and twice of... F-15E/F-35A. The next generation strategic bomber is not the kind of aircraft that most think it is and H-20 is likely to follow suit.