Support: January 6, 2003

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China has taken several steps to increase it's ability to extend its combat power beyond its borders. One of the lesser known is the conversion of a dozen of their Russian designed Tu-16 jet bombers to serve as aerial tankers. The Chinese build their own Tu-16s, and call it the H-6. This aircraft is a 1950s design, but the Chinese have refined that design somewhat. The H-6 tanker carries about 39 tons of fuel, which is about half what the most common U.S. tanker (the KC-135) carriers. The tanker version of the U.S. C-130 also carries about 39 tons of fuel, but is slower than the jet powered H-6. The most commonly refueled aircraft is the J-8 (which is an updated version of the Russian MiG-21) and more modern fighters recently purchased from Russia. Chinese naval aviation is a major user of the H-6 tanker, and gives the Chinese navy the ability to send warplanes way out over the South China Sea. This is important to the Chinese, because there are ongoing disputes with other nations bordering the South China Sea over who owns some small islands, and their suspected nearby oil fields. One H-6 tanker can provide in-flight refueling for an H-6 bomber (carrying anti-ship missiles) and two J-8 fighters as all four aircraft fly up to 1500 kilometers, which is  just about anywhere in the South China Sea. But the Chinese have not done this very often, mainly because their H-6 tanker crews only get about 80 hours a year in the air. The crews spend a lot of time in simulators and practicing drills on the aircraft while on the ground. But when American recon aircraft have caught the H-6 tanker in action, they appeared to be quite capable of doing their job.


 


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