A September satellite photo shows what appear to be the four newly built Chinese H-6J heavy bombers. These are a new model and were apparently built for the Chinese Navy. The H-6J is similar to the cruise missile carrying H-6K used by the Chinese Air Force, which has about 110 H-6s compared to about 30 for the navy. The latest version of the H-6 can carry the 2.5 ton YJ-12 supersonic missile that can hit land targets or ships at sea. While China still builds H-6s it was also announced that the H-6 replacement, the H-20 existed in prototype form and was close (early 2019) to making its maiden flight. The H-20 looks a lot like the American B-2. The H-6J may have some new features like longer range or the ability to carry more YJ-12 missiles but not anything radically different.
China prefers gradual improvements and has long been developing more capabilities for the H-6. At the end of 2017, a new variant was seen over the South China Sea. The new version was actually an old (2007-8) H-6G which was a bomber model modified to provide updated targeting information for cruise missiles. This involved installing lots of additional electronics inside the aircraft. The new H-6G was seen with two ECM (electronic countermeasure) pods carried under its wings. These pods had been seen, also in late 2017, fitted to the J-16 (a clone of the Russian Su-30MK2). Both are 34 ton fighter-bombers similar to the American F-15E. The Su-30MK2 can carry 8 tons of smart bombs and missiles. It can be refueled in the air and is equipped to operate over land and open water. The Chinese J-16 SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) electronic warfare aircraft is referred to as the J-16D and some are apparently going to operate from Chinese aircraft carriers. The H-6G is land-based and often seen operating in the West Pacific and the South China Sea.
The appearance of the ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) H-6G might explain another unexplained H-6 development. In early 2017 there appeared at least one H-6K equipped with an aerial refueling probe. This really doesn’t make much sense extending the range of the H-6K as this bomber was designed to carry long-range missiles (land attack and anti-ship). Extending H-6K range so it could reach targets in Hawaii or the American west coast doesn’t make much sense as the risks of being detected and shot down along the way are too high.
China did not say what its H-6K equipped with aerial refueling was going to do but an H-6 with aerial refueling capability did make sense for an H-6 equipped for electronic warfare. In any event, the H-6K, in general, appears to be largely a development project. That’s because since 2011 only about twenty H-6Ks have entered service and Chinese officials have said they want to develop a modern heavy bomber (H-20) but that takes time and tinkering with the H-6 has always been seen as an option if the government refused to pay for the major investment required for new heavy bomber design. But adding aerial refueling capability to the H-6G would make it a more useful ECM aircraft as these could jam enemy radars and communications quickly if one the H-6Gs just happened to be in the air at the time of a crisis.
Until the H-6J the H-6K was the latest version of China’s largest and most capable long-range bomber and is basically a much improved and modernized version of a 1950s Russian Tu-16. The K model has a modern (“glass”) cockpit that consists largely of five flat screen touch displays rather than the older array of many switches and small analog indicators. Photos on the Internet also showed that the H-6K had a new side entry door that could use a stair or a ladder. The H-6J apparently had the same modern features of the K model.
The H-6K entered service in 2011 after several years of development. The H-6K uses more efficient Russian engines (D30KP2) that give it a range of about 3,500 kilometers without aerial refueling. Electronics are state-of-the-art and include a more powerful radar. The fuselage of the bomber has been reinforced with lighter, stronger, composite materials giving it longer range and greater carrying capacity. The rear facing 23mm autocannon has been replaced with electronic warfare equipment.
The current H-6K was designed to carry six of the two-ton CJ-10A land-attack cruise missiles under its wings and one more in the bomb bay. These missiles appear to have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, as they are similar to the older Russian Kh-55 (which could be armed with a nuclear warhead). The CJ-10A is sometimes described as a high-speed (2,500 kilometers an hour), solid fuel missile. But that type of missile is a short range (about 300 kilometers) anti-ship system. The CJ-10A appears to be more of a copy of the American Tomahawk (which uses a much slower jet engine). The CJ-10A can carry a nuclear warhead but usually does not. Armed with CJ-10A the H6K can attack American bases on Okinawa and Guam using air-launched cruise missiles.
The YJ-12 missile appeared in 2015 and is more suited for attacking well defended warships at sea. The 2.5 ton YJ-12 is supersonic all the way to its target and has a max range of 400 kilometers. The YJ-12 can maneuver to evade interception as it approaches its target and carries several sensors for detecting the ship it was intended to hit (like a carrier and not a destroyer). The YJ-12 guidance system is resistant to jamming and regularly updated. Warhead weight is 200 kg (440 pounds) or 250 kg. There are export versions with lots of options but not the most modern electronics, which are reserved for the missiles used by the Chinese military.
The H-6K can also carry up to eight anti-ship missiles, making it a threat to American carriers. This became obvious in late 2015 when Chinese media made much of a training exercise over the South China Sea featuring H-6Ks. In that November exercise, eight H-6Ks were seen more than a thousand kilometers out to sea and accompanied by electronic warfare aircraft. Four of the H-6Ks flew close to Okinawa and were photographed by Japanese aircraft. This was apparently an effort to demonstrate the Chinese capability to hit targets far from the Chinese mainland, especially American bases in Okinawa and Guam. This was but the latest effort to publicize the H-6K. Earlier China media heavily covered senior officials visiting airbases where the H-6K was shown off with journalists allowed to take close up photos of the aircraft, including the cockpit. Apparently, that publicity did not do the trick so the November flights were used for emphasis.
There are about 140 H-6s in service (out of about 200 built). These are Chinese copies of the Russian Tu-16s (about 1,500 built). Although the Tu-16 design is over fifty years old, China has continued to rely on their H-6s as one of their principal bombers. The H-6 is a 78 ton aircraft with a crew of four and two engines. Most models can carry nine tons of bombs and missiles, with the new H-6K able to haul about 12 tons. Most H-6s carry the YJ-12, CJ-10A and C201 missiles, as well as bombs. It does not appear that China is planning on building a lot of H-6Ks, perhaps no more than thirty. The Russians kept their Tu-16s in service until the early 1990s, but China kept improving their H-6 copy. Thus the H-6K is a capable heavy bomber that may be around for another decade or two.