The recently debuted next-generation US strategic bomber B-21, equipped with advanced stealth capabilities and powerful electronic warfare capabilities, is considered by the Pentagon as a trump card to counter the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) “anti-access/area denial” strategy. However, a report from the South China Morning Post on November 27 reveals that Chinese scientists, in recent simulated confrontations, not only detected the B-21’s movements but also successfully shot down the US stealth bomber and its drones using advanced missiles and new tactics. To understand why Chinese research teams engaged in a simulated confrontation of “shooting down the B-21,” it’s necessary to delve into the Pentagon’s development of this new bomber.
The report suggests that both China and the US are developing next-generation stealth aircraft equipped with the latest weapons. With the competition intensifying between the two nations, Chinese research teams conducted a virtual showdown to determine how to win future aerial battles. A paper published in October by a research team led by Associate Professor Chen Jun at Xi’an Northwestern Polytechnical University, as reported in the Journal of Aeronautics, indicates that in the event of a direct conflict, the struggle for air superiority between China and the US would become complex and intense, possibly taking hours to settle.
The new US stealth bomber B-21 Raider successfully made its maiden flight on November 10, 2023, in California. While it can only cruise at high subsonic speeds, it is expected to play a crucial role in the US Air Force’s Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) strategy, specifically designed to counteract the PLA in combat.
The PLA’s “anti-access/area denial” strategy relies on advanced radar networks and hypersonic anti-ship missiles, capable of deterring US conventional forces near China’s periphery. The B-21’s radar reflection signal is claimed to be “smaller than that of a mosquito,” and the US envisions it using its advanced stealth capabilities to “penetrate deep into enemy territory” and launch a large number of missiles or bombs, weakening the PLA’s core defense facilities. The report also suggests that, unlike current bombers like the B-2, the B-21 can command stealth drones and carry dozens of air-to-air missiles in its large weapons bay, making it a formidable aerial platform. Hence, the US military believes that the PCA strategy could pose a severe threat to China’s air defense system, which heavily relies on land, sea, or airborne early warning radar platforms.
However, China evidently did not overlook this emerging threat. According to the report, in the simulated confrontations led by Chen Jun’s research team, China demonstrated some cutting-edge technologies in development. For instance, PLA aircraft en route to the virtual battlefield could shut down radar and maintain radio silence. Still, they could use advanced technology to retain situational awareness of the surrounding airspace, including utilizing intelligent skin coverage on the aircraft to receive electromagnetic or infrared signals from distant targets. Moreover, China’s stealth aircraft and drones have hypersonic cruise speeds, potentially faster than their US counterparts.
More crucially, China’s hypersonic missiles possess special capabilities for tracking and damaging stealth aircraft. The research team indicates that, relying on a new type of solid-fuel pulse engine, the next-generation air-to-air missiles can adjust power output freely throughout the entire flight. They would first enter the near space and then descend at an extremely high speed to hit the enemy aircraft from above.
This unconventional striking method is traced back to the “Qian Xuesen Ballistic,” first proposed by the “Father of Chinese Rocketry,” Qian Xuesen, in the 1940s. Its flight trajectory is more challenging to predict than traditional ballistic paths, and it can cover longer distances. However, researchers emphasize that victory cannot be guaranteed by hardware alone; advanced algorithms ensure better destruction effects. For example, in one simulated battle, a US stealth aircraft equipped with advanced sensors detected the launch of the Chinese missile and maneuvered to evade the attack. “After rapid calculations, the Chinese missile concluded that it was likely to miss the target. Consequently, the attack mission automatically switched to another hypersonic missile, which was originally targeting the B-21’s unmanned drone. This intelligent switching of targets by the Chinese missile left the US aircraft defenseless, unable to make any effective response before being hit.”
Currently, decision-making in aerial combat relies mainly on pilots. Still, the Chinese research team suggests that traditional tactics in air force training and operations will undergo profound changes, with the potential for using artificial intelligence technology to make rapid decisions among human pilots, drones, and missiles at different stages of combat. “Due to the difficulty of control during high-speed flight, hypersonic weapons are usually limited to attacking fixed or slow-moving targets. However, in simulated battles, Chinese missiles may make sharp turns shortly after launch, allowing artificial intelligence to devise attack plans previously considered impractical.”
Regardless of the authenticity of the South China Morning Post’s report, China is undoubtedly taking the development of the B-21 stealth bomber by the US seriously. Although the US military remains globally dominant in the field of stealth bombers, the threat posed by the B-21 to the PLA cannot be underestimated. However, the PLA’s anti-stealth combat system has already taken shape, making it challenging for the B-21 to easily penetrate China’s air defense network, as the US military envisions, and certainly not as boasted by the US Air Force Secretary of “laying mines under the PLA’s air defense missiles.” At the very least, the South China Morning Post’s report confirms that the PLA is actively exploring ways to counter the US Air Force’s stealth advantage through various technological means, possibly leveraging artificial intelligence to achieve a “strategic overtaking.”