Strategic Weapons: China Joins The Triad Club


June 2, 2022: In 2020 China revealed a new version of their H-6 bomber, the H-6N. This model is modified to perform aerial refueling and carry an ALBM (air-launched ballistic missile). China was already known to be developing an ALBM called the CH-AS-X-13. This is based on the 10.7-meter (35 feet) long, 1400mm (4.6 feet) diameter 14.7-ton DF-21 ground launched ballistic missile that has a range of about 1,800 kilometers and carries a half-ton conventional or nuclear warhead. The DF-21 is a two-stage solid fuel missile. As an ALBM the max range would be 3,000 kilometers. The H-6N was apparently developed to give China a nuclear triad, as the United States, Russia, Britain and France have had for over half a century. The DF-21 is itself a ground launched variant of China’s first SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile), the JL-1.

China has developed several variants of its H-6 twin-engine bomber. In late 2017 a new variant of the H-6 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. The H-6G is often seen operating in the West Pacific and the South China Sea.

The appearance of the ECM H-6G might explain another H-6 development. In early 2017 there appeared at least one H-6K equipped with an aerial refueling probe. 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. The appearance of the H-6N explains what the H-6K is needed for.

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 preferable to making a major investment in a new aircraft 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.

The H-6N is 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 and N models have 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. These pictures also showed that the H-6K had a new side entry door that could use a stair or a ladder.

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 H-6K can carry six of the two-ton CJ-10A land-attack cruise missiles under its wings and one more in the bomb bay. These 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 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 a hundred 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 and the H-6N can carry a bit more. Most H-6s carry the 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. The H-6K is a capable heavy bomber that may be around for another decade or two.




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