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How the Descendants of a 1950s Bomber Transformed China’s Strike Reach

An overview of the H-6K family and its role in the PLA’s toolbox of strike options.

How the Descendants of a 1950s Bomber Transformed China’s Strike Reach
Credit: Sina Weibo

Recent blurry pictures of an H-6N bomber hauling a massive missile in its ventral hardpoint have thrust the H-6K family of bombers – produced by Chinese aircraft maker Xi’an Aircraft Company (XAC) – back into the limelight again. In recent years, the modern H-6K family – including the H-6K, H-6J, and most recently the H-6N – have made headlines as instruments of Chinese signaling in the region, conducting flights around Taiwan, near Japan, and in the South China Sea as displays of political resolve. And of course, they have been a staple of Chinese military parades over the last decade as well.

The conventional configuration of the aircraft, a non-stealthy, subsonic airframe – and its heritage going back to a Soviet design from the early 1950s – may lead some to question its exact role in the 21st century. This piece will review the characteristics of the modern H-6K family, their present capabilities and role in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) toolbox of strike options, as well as their future potential.

For the purposes of brevity, the H-6K, H-6J, and H-6N will collectively be referred to as the “H-6K family” as the latter two are subvariants of the H-6K variant itself. The individual variants will be referred to by their own designations, respectively.

From the Tu-16 to the H-6K

The original Tu-16 was developed by the Soviet Union, first flying in 1952 and entering service in 1954 as a replacement to the piston driven Tu-4, itself a reverse engineered derivative of the famous American B-29 Superfortress. In the Soviet Union and its successor states, the Tu-16 enjoyed a long service life, only being retired in the early 1990s. Technology was transferred from the Soviet Union to China prior to the Sino-Soviet split that allowed China to eventually domestically produce the aircraft under the designation H-6. Multiple variants of the H-6 were produced during the Cold War and beyond, up to the early 2000s, with sensor, electronic warfare (EW), and avionics upgrades, and modification as cruise missile carriers to accommodate anti-ship missiles (AShMs) and land attack cruise missiles (LACMs). However, the overall propulsion and structure of these variants did not enjoy significant improvements from the original H-6s and Tu-16s, retaining the WP-8 turbojets, a glass nose, and limited external wing load capacity.

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The H-6K project began in the early 2000s, resulting in substantially redesigned and improved aircraft, all of which were new production airframes. The aircraft’s structure was strengthened to enable carriage of three large KD-20 LACMs on each wing and the nose was redesigned to a solid radome that can carry a large aperture radar. Additional avionics improvements included passive sensors and an electro-optics ball and a modern glass cockpit, while the air intakes were enlarged for D-30 turbofans, improving maximum weight, fuel economy, and range. It is also worth noting that contrary to certain inaccurate articles, the H-6K retains its ventral bomb bay, though it is not large enough to carry its primary large weapons like KD-20.

One Chinese state media television show describes H-6K with a maximum takeoff weight of 95 tons, a payload of 12 tons, and a fuel load of 40 tons. While Chinese state media are not always entirely accurate in their description of PLA systems, the numbers in this case are certainly plausible and consistent with an increased weight, payload, and fuel load that would be expected compared to a vintage Tu-16.

The first H-6K prototype flew in early 2007, and the first operational unit entered service in 2011 with the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). Since that time, about 90 unique serial airframes have been identified, with the real number of H-6Ks produced likely exceeding 100 airframes up to now. However, the flexibility of the H-6K airframe virtually guaranteed it would not be long until spinoff variants emerged.

The H-6K to the H-6J…

A subvariant of the H-6K, called the H-6J, first flew in 2014, featuring a few modifications making it suitable for the maritime strike role. The H-6J retains the same overall configuration as the H-6K but with some minor external differences: namely the addition of two large wingtip EW pods, as well as a larger dorsal grey radome and a different electro-optic sensor. It is likely that other minor avionics differences and improvements also exist given the timespan between the development of the original H-6K and H-6J.

The primary weapon of the H-6J is the heavy, supersonic YJ-12 AShM, a missile that first entered service around 2015, capable of being launched by aircraft, ships, or land vehicles. While the speed and range of the missile are impressive (thought to include a top speed approaching Mach 4 and a range of 400 kilometers or more, depending on flight profile), as with all contemporary PLA weapons, it is likely its guidance system that makes it a weapon suitable for the 21st century. Of the H-6J’s six weapons pylons, so far only the four innermost pylons have been observed carrying the YJ-12. The YJ-12 is a larger, heavier missile than the KD-20, potentially weighing as much as 2.5 tons, and it is possible the outermost weapons pylons are unable to accommodate its weight, though this is yet to be confirmed.

The first H-6J unit was thought to have been stood up in early 2019 with the PLA Naval Aviation Force (PLANAF), and at least 14 unique serial airframes have been identified as of late 2020, with the true number of commissioned H-6Js likely exceeding 20 aircraft.

It is worth noting that some upgrades seen in the H-6J appear to have been ported over to current H-6K production. In late 2020, new H-6Ks were seen with wingtip EW pods similar to the H-6J, as well as demonstrating compatibility with the YJ-12 missile, and this aircraft variant has been cautiously dubbed the H-6KG. More enticingly, photos throughout 2020 have shown “standard” pre-existing PLAAF H-6K aircraft also carrying YJ-12s, suggesting the previous 100+ strong H-6K fleet is also capable of fielding the PLA’s premier high-end, air-launched AShM.

… and H-6N

The H-6J was then followed by the H-6N, a variant of the same H-6K family but with some more visible external modifications, including an in-flight refueling (IFR) probe, as well as the removal of the ventral weapons bay for a large ventral external station used to accommodate a singular large external payload. The first H-6N batch may have entered service in 2018.

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The H-6N’s ventral payload has long been speculated to be an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) with a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV), perhaps a derivative of the land-based DF-21D, providing similar strike and anti-ship capabilities but from an air-launched platform. This weapon has been designated by the U.S. government as “CH-AS-X-13” but the PLA’s designation for it remains unknown. Recent pictures in October 2020 showing a commissioned H-6N in flight with its large ventral payload have also sparked speculation over whether the missile might instead be a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) or perhaps even an air breathing hypersonic weapon of some sort, or if there are already multiple large missile types that H-6N is capable of launching.

In this author’s opinion, the H-6N is presently in service with only a single large missile type, with recent pictures likely depicting that same operational system rather than one in testing. It is likely to either be an ALBM with a MaRV warhead or a HGV warhead, while the idea of an air breathing missile appears the least likely at this stage, but confirmation of this will depend on clearer pictures. Regardless of the exact weapon type, the new missile is certainly the largest air launched missile currently in service or flying in the world.

The other major payload that the H-6N is thought to carry is the WZ-8 rocket powered strategic reconnaissance drone, officially revealed at the 2019 Chinese National Day parade. While this has yet to be visually confirmed, there are no other platforms that WZ-8 could be launched from at this stage. Finally, the H-6N retains the same six wing weapon pylons as the rest of the H-6K family, enabling it to conduct the same standoff strike missions as the H-6K, and potentially maritime strike like the H-6J.

Of the H-6K family, the H-6N has arguably roused the greatest amount of interest from the English language defense media, likely because a large air-launched hypersonic speed missile is somewhat novel in its potential military effects, and the presence of an IFR probe enables the aircraft to enjoy greater combat radii as well. There has also been official speculation from U.S. government sources that the H-6N is intended to be a nuclear capable platform, but this has yet to be definitively suggested through the PLA watching grapevine.

Currently, four unique serials of the H-6N have been identified in service, with actual in-service airframes potentially being double this or more.

Numbers, Weapons, and Sensors

The exact number of H-6K family bombers is not definitively known, but based on counting unique serials and extrapolating the different units that field the aircraft, this author believes there may be about 110 H-6K/KGs, 20 or more H-6Js, and anywhere from four to 10 H-6Ns in service, for a total of 130-140 H-6K family airframes currently operational. This does not include older H-6H or H-6M aircraft.

At present, the H-6K family remain in production at XAC, distributed between H-6KG, H-6J and H-6N types. It’s not known what the final production run of H-6K family aircraft will be, but it is conceivable that the final number could approach 200 airframes, which would provide a robust fleet capable of regional standoff strike and maritime strike.

The H-6K family are primarily carriers of long-range powered strike weapons. The aforementioned KD-20 is the H-6K family’s primary strike weapon, and each aircraft can carry up to six on its wing pylons. The KD-20 enjoys a range of anywhere between 1,500-2,000 kilometers, and is an air-launched variant of the land-launched DF-10 LACM. For those unfamiliar with the wide variety of LACMs in the world, the KD-20 can be broadly thought of as an air-launched Tomahawk LACM, with similar satellite guidance and terrain following features as standard, though improved KD-20A variants might feature additional terminal guidance capability. Combined with the H-6K’s combat radius of over 3,000 kilometers, the KD-20 provides a thorough standoff regional strike capability, and is able to hold at risk many important regional targets even if it is launched from an H-6K operating hundreds of kilometers within Chinese airspace.

The YJ-12 has already been discussed, as has the H-6N’s large ALBM/HGV weapon.

Other weapons that the H-6K can carry include the older, heavier KD-63 LACM. Weighing 2 tons, and boasting a much shorter range of under 200 kilometers, the YJ-63 likely remains compatible with the H-6K family due to large stocks of the older missile, though their large half ton warhead means it could still inflict significant damage against foes whose air defenses have been sufficiently degraded to enable an H-6K aircraft to enter within 200 km of its target. H-6K can also carry unguided iron bombs (within its bomb bay, but also up to 36 250 kilogram bombs on wing pylons) and a type of large thermobaric bomb as well.

All of these weapons are supported by a surface attack radar, thought to be a passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar on the original H-6Ks, though it’s unknown if recent production H-6KGs, H-6Js, and H-6Ns adopt AESA technology that is now so ubiquitous in PLA use. Self-defense missile approach warning systems, electronic support measures, datalinks, and an electro-optics sensor round out the H-6K family’s standard avionics kit.

The Bottom Line

The H-6K family provides the PLA with a flexible, relatively low cost, and reliable regional strike capability that has been – and is actively being – procured in large numbers. It is not an exaggeration to state that about a hundred of the aircraft type have been procured and commissioned within the space of a decade, and the associated boost in the PLA’s regional strike capacity is significant, further enhanced in context of the PLAAF’s greater number of strike capable tactical fighters, as well as the PLA Rocket Force’s growth of their own ground launched LACMs and conventionally tipped ballistic missiles.

(Despite assertions of the H-6K family being “nuclear capable” in media and defense circles, there are no indications this is an active role the PLA employs the aircraft in.)

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Similar to the U.S. Air Force’s B-52H fleet, the H-6K family will likely enjoy further enhancements in sensors, avionics, and integration with future payloads as they are developed, including but not limited to stealthy cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, EW payloads, and swarming systems. Even with current avionics, the H-6K family could also likely operate in a supplementary information-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) role or EW role depending on mission demand, but future upgrades could make the aircraft even more multirole – enabled not least by the relatively low cost of the aircraft and its size, both providing good growth margin.

One viable and relatively low-cost strike upgrade is to provide the H-6K a robust direct attack precision guided munition (PGM) capability – i.e. unpowered bombs equipped with guidance kits or wing extension kits. The H-6K has demonstrated an ability to carry 36 250 kilogram dumb bombs that can structurally accommodate equal size PGMs, and also features a ventral pylon for a datalink pod that could easily be used to equip a targeting pod. Of course, as previously written, the PLA at present is reluctant to adopt guided direct attack munitions given they remain focused on conflicts with technologically capable adversaries where the relatively short range of PGMs will preclude their effective deployment.

Other potential upgrades include the retrofit of an IFR probe to the H-6K and H-6J, but it is unknown if the structural work would be worthwhile given the PLA’s current relative lack of aerial tankers.

As new build airframes, the H-6K family will likely be in service for many years, and will remain relevant even when the expected H-20 stealth bomber enters service. The H-20 will almost certainly be unable to carry the large ventral missile systems that the H-6N can, and the H-6K family’s pylons can carry outsize payloads impractical on tactical fighters, virtually ensuring they will remain relevant for years if not decades yet.

Finally, the process in developing what was essentially an entirely new aircraft, and the associated testing and systems integration work, likely advanced crucial competencies for XAC and the Chinese aerospace industry at large, allowing them to subsequently pursue the much larger Y-20 strategic transporter, which first flew in early 2013. And in turn, experience with the Y-20 likely provided an invaluable stepping stone for XAC to conduct its work on the H-20 stealth bomber, whose emergence is being awaited in the next few years as indicators continue to trickle out.