In late November Chinese media made much of a training exercise over the South China Sea featuring their H-6K bomber. This is the latest version of China’s largest and most capable long range bomber. In the 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. In March China media heavily covered senior officials visiting airbases where the H-6K was shown off with media 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.
The H-6K is the latest version of the H-6 and while much is known about it, there had been no pictures of the cockpit, at least none that the public could see, before the March media event. Apparently Western intel agencies had not had a look inside either as there was some buzz in the intel community when the propaganda pictures of the visit showed the inside of the cockpit and the modern (“glass”) cockpit that consisted largely of five flat screen touch displays rather than the older array of many switches and small indicators. These pictures also showed that the H-6K had a new side entry door that could use a stair or a ladder.
Since 2011 China has received over twenty of the H-6K. This model only 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. 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 (using a much slower jet engine). The CJ-10A can carry a nuclear warhead but usually does not. Armed with these missiles the H6K can attack American bases on Okinawa and Guam with these cruise missiles. The H-6K can also carry up to eight anti-ship missiles, making it a threat to American carriers.
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. Most H-6s carry the CJ-10A and C201 missiles, as well as bombs. It does not appear that China is 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 will apparently be around for another decade or two.