The U.S. Air Force is cutting bombers. The Chinese air force is adding them. That mismatch could weigh on the USAF’s budget priorities under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

by David Axe

Just three countries have bombers. The Russian air force has 135 Tu-22s, Tu-95s and Tu-160s. The U.S. Air Force operates 156 B-1s, B-2s and B-52s. China’s bomber fleet is bigger by far. According to a new count by plane-spotter Thomas Shugart, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force possesses as many as 231 H-6s.

And alone among the three bomber-operators, China is actually building new bombers. True, Russia is rebuilding many of its bombers and the U.S. Air Force is about to begin buying new B-21 stealth bombers. But Beijing has the advantage of a hot production line churning out new planes.

And fast. According to Shugart’s count, the PLAAF has added around three dozen H-6s—upgraded copies of the twin-engine Soviet Tu-16—in just two years. The Chinese bomber fleet now includes a number of variants of the H-6, including the H-6J anti-ship missile-carrier, the H-6K land-attack missile-carrier and the new H-6N, which can be refuelled in mid-air and could carry a new hypersonic missile.

Shugart spotted H-6s at no fewer than 10 bases. “I'm sure this is all normal, ho-hum stuff for a nation with a growing economy and a few local tensions with its neighbours,” Shugart sarcastically tweeted.

To be fair, the H-6 is smaller and less sophisticated than America’s own bombers are. Most H-6s lack aerial-refuelling gear and thus suffer serious range limitations that aren’t a problem for U.S. bombers, all of which are refuellable. H-6s with their lumps, bumps and conventional materials are decidedly non-stealthy, especially compared to the flying-wing B-2 and B-21.

Still, the H-6s together represent the world’s second- or third-most-potent long-range aerial strike force. And that could be a factor as the U.S. Air Force looks ahead to at least four years under Biden.

The service long has planned to buy at least 100 B-21s to fly alongside 74 re-engined B-52s through the 2050s. But the American bomber fleet probably will shrink before it grows again. The USAF is asking Congress to let it send 17 of the most worn-out B-1s to the boneyard in 2021.

Even before the PLAAF added dozens of new H-6s, the USAF was considering asking lawmakers for more than just a hundred B-21s. If the U.S. flying branch aims to match China’s own bomber force, it will need at least 160 of the new stealth bombers.