China is apparently testing another update for its H-6K long range bomber. A cell phone photo recently appeared showing an H-6K with an aerial refueling probe. This really doesn’t make much sense because extending the range of the H-6K as it was designed to carry long range missiles (land attack and anti-ship). Extending H-6K range so it can reach targets in Hawaii or the American west coast doesn’t make much since as the risks of being detected and shot down along the way are too high.
There are, however, some practical uses of an H-6K that can refuel in the air. The most likely use of aerial refueling is to enable the H-6K to carry multiple ASAT (anti-satellite) missiles or one air launched satellite launcher. In both cases the H-6K could increase its payload by carrying much less fuel for takeoff and then when airborne take on enough fuel to fuel to complete the mission. That would involve flying high rather than far. This sort of thing has been done before and Chinese engineers are familiar with the details.
The U.S. has already developed and tested both ASAT missiles (ASM-135) and air launched satellite launcher rockets (the Pegasus). Back in the 1980s, the U.S. Air Force developed the ASM-135 for knocking down low orbit satellites by using a 1.2 ton missile launched from a high flying jet fighter. This was done in response to news that Russia was developing a similar system. The Russian system relied on killsats and was never that effective. A successful test of ASM-135 was conducted in 1985, but the program was shut down three years later because the air force preferred to spend the money elsewhere.
A little later, in the 1990s, a civilian firm (Orbital ATK) developed, tested and built Pegasus air-launched (from a B-52 or modified large airliner) three stage solid fuel rockets for putting small (up to half a ton) satellites into LEO (low earth orbit). The first version of Pegasus weighed 19 tons and the latest one 23 tons. So far (1990 to 2016) Pegasus has been launched 43 times and failed only 7 percent of the time. Most of the failed launches were early development models. In other words, Pegasus is still in use and the air force has admitted that the ASM-135 could resume production and be even more reliable, effective and cheaper because advances in missile and guidance tech since the 1980s.
China is not saying what its H-6K equipped with aerial refueling is going to do. 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 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.
The H-6K 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 design. 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. 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 current 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. 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 may be around for another decade or two.