The New Era of Supersonic Stealth Fighter-Bombers

Blurry image of an aircraft, suspected to be the legendary JH-26

The announcement of the JH-26 supersonic stealth fighter-bomber is imminent. News about the JH-26, a sibling of the J-20, has been circulating since the end of last year, and its official release is expected soon. Here, we provide a brief introduction. The designation JH-26 originates from a long-standing legend, as its combat radius reaches 3000 kilometers, akin to the DF-26 ballistic missile. Until its official model name is released, we will continue to use the designation JH-26. The continuous test flights of the dual-seat J-20 models and the integration of WS-15 engines in recent years indicate that the JH-26 has the necessary technological foundation.

Significance of Supersonic Stealth Fighter-Bombers

The design of stealth combat aircraft revolves around internal weapon bays. For air combat-focused models, the internal weapon bay cannot be too large, as it would affect speed, maneuverability, and other performance metrics. Examples include the J-20 and F-22. Conversely, for ground-attack models, the weapon bay space needs to be larger to carry more munitions, which can compromise speed and maneuverability. The F-35A/C, for instance, is designed for ground attacks and can carry two 907 kg guided munitions in its weapon bay, but this makes it bulkier and relatively less agile.

Non-stealth fighters do not face this limitation; all munitions can be externally mounted, allowing for mission-specific loadout changes. This flexibility enables non-stealth fighters to perform dual roles, but stealth fighters cannot do this. Hence, the optimal approach is to have distinct models for air combat and ground attack missions. Originally, the F-22 was used for air superiority, and the F-35 for ground attacks. However, this combination is now challenged due to the limited number and aging of F-22s, which are declining in combat effectiveness. Pushing the F-35 into an air superiority role is somewhat of a mismatch.

CG image of China’s rumored “sixth-generation fighter jet” circulating online

The US once envisioned an extended FB-22 based on the F-22, with a lengthened fuselage and weapon bay to retain supersonic capabilities while meeting mid-range bomber needs. The FB-22 could bridge the gap between fighter and long-range bomber capabilities, carrying 30 to 36 small-diameter bombs with a combat radius of 2600 kilometers.

Design Features and Capabilities of the JH-26

The JH-26 needs a dual-seat configuration due to its long-range capabilities, allowing for over 8 hours of flight time. For single-seat fighters, continuous flight exceeding 4 hours leads to significant physical and mental exhaustion for the pilot. However, dual-seat fighters, with one pilot responsible for flight control and air combat and the other focusing on radar, electro-optical target detection, tracking, and weapon control, can alleviate this issue. This division of labor allows the JH-26 to quickly identify and destroy enemy targets in complex battlefield environments. Additionally, the JH-26 is equipped with a more powerful phased-array radar and comprehensive electronic warfare systems, capable of long-distance reconnaissance and electronic interference.

In the future, the JH-26 will also undertake more command and control tasks for unmanned combat aircraft. As combat platforms become increasingly automated and information-driven, future battlefields will rely more on unmanned combat aircraft. The JH-26, as a heavy stealth fighter-bomber with high automation and informatization levels, needs to effectively command and control various unmanned combat aircraft, enhancing the combat effectiveness of the entire aerial combat system.

Increasing Internal Weapon Bay Size

According to available data, the J-20’s internal weapon bay measures approximately 4.6 meters in length, 2.3 meters in width, and 0.7 meters in depth. To accommodate more munitions, it can be expanded to 6 meters, with transverse partitions in the bay for added structural strength, capable of carrying 3-4 heavy guided bombs like the Tiange-1000 or 24-32 small-diameter bombs.

China possesses the world’s largest 80,000-ton hydraulic press for forging high-strength, lightweight titanium alloy components. The F-111 fighter-bomber, by comparison, has a 5-meter-long weapon bay. Prioritizing ground attack over air combat, it accepts lower performance in air combat elements, with a maximum speed of 2M and a maximum overload of 6-7G. The goal is to achieve long-range, high stealth payload capacity.

The stealth design, dual-seat configuration, and increased range of the JH-26 require larger internal fuel tanks, increasing the wing area. For reference, the F-111’s maximum internal fuel capacity is 14.5 tons, with a maximum internal fuel range of 6000 kilometers and an operational radius of over 2100 kilometers. With aerial refueling, the range can extend to 10,000 kilometers, with a combat radius of over 3000 kilometers. Assuming an empty weight of 20 tons, an internal stealth payload of 4 tons, and 15 tons of fuel, the JH-26’s maximum stealth takeoff weight would be close to 40 tons, with non-stealth configurations reaching over 45 tons. The combat radius would not be lower than the F-111, but with superior speed and maneuverability.

With increased size and weight, the JH-26 will face engine thrust limitations. According to available data, the WS-15 high-thrust engine has officially entered service, providing a maximum thrust of 16 tons and an intermediate thrust of 10 tons in its first phase, achieving a takeoff thrust-to-weight ratio of 0.8.

The JH-26’s advantage lies in its integrated reconnaissance and strike capability. Conventional long-range missiles primarily target fixed objectives like airports, hangars, bridges, arsenals, fuel depots, communication and command centers, military headquarters, and transport hubs. These targets, accounting for 10%-20% of total targets, are well-protected with anti-missile systems and surrounded by numerous decoys. However, the JH-26 excels in engaging mobile, time-sensitive targets such as ground aircraft, helicopters, mobile radars, surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, armored convoys, and infantry.

The JH-26 retains supersonic combat capabilities, leveraging stealth to swiftly maneuver on the battlefield, using synthetic aperture radar to search for ground targets, and employing electro-optical systems for identification and tracking, guiding drones or precision-guided munitions for strikes.

Conclusion

The focus on the F-35’s air combat capabilities is somewhat misplaced. Its greatest threat lies in its stealth reconnaissance and ground attack capabilities. Although it can only carry two 908 kg bombs, its increasing numbers make its precision strike capability a significant threat. However, once the JH-26 enters mass production, this dynamic will change completely. (Zhang Gong)

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