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How Dangerous Is The Chinese H-6K Missile Bomber?

May 28, 2018

Via China Military Online/Xinhua.

China has made a habit of flying combat aircraft around Taiwan to remind the island nation it considers a “rogue province” that asserting its full independence will have dire consequences. But on May 18 the world’s press agencies broke the news the airbase on Woody Island, which has been under Chinese control for more than 40 years, received an H-6K. This meant China’s strategic bombers can deploy farther than they used to and even threaten nearby countries.

Indeed, the H-6K has earned itself no small amount of notoriety because it can be armed with missiles. Some news reports even claim its ordnance is “nuclear-capable,” never mind the fact that China’s nukes are a last resort in a superpower showdown. But why does the Chinese air force bother with missile-carrying bombers anyway?

Communist China was lucky to have the Soviet Union as its staunch ally during the first dozen years of its statehood. This allowed Moscow to build up a client who could challenge the US’ hegemony over the Asia-Pacific. Alas, the Sino-Soviet split in 1962 doomed the relationship between Beijing and Moscow to irreconcilable distrust. At the very least, the Soviets helped China establish heavy industries and even sent over a small fleet of Tu-16 bombers.

The Soviet Tu-16 was the first jet powered strategic bomber manufactured by the Tupolev Design Bureau, the same firm that copied the American B-29 and rebranded it the Tu-4. Like many Soviet airframes, the Tu-16 that was christened by NATO as the “Badger” enjoyed massive production figures in the span of a decade, from 1953 until 1963. Manufacturing the Tu-16 was split between three facilities–in Kazan, Kuibyshev and Voronezh–and a total of 1,509 were estimated built.

A few Tu-16’s were exported to Egypt while the Russian Federation retired its vast fleet in 1993. Leftover Tu-16’s were consigned to eternal neglect in Ukraine while China’s PLAAF may have scrapped the original Tu-16’s it allegedly received in 1958.

So the original Tu-16, which the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) claims was spun off to more than 20 variants, is a relic from a bygone age. But lo and behold, the H-6K is undeniable proof its legacy endures. It turns out the state-owned Xian Aircraft Company Ltd., based in Shaanxi Province, either acquired a license or just copied the Tu-16A delivered from the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.

The aging Xian H-6H keeps it old school with a spacious bay for dumb ordnance. Via China Military Online.

The Chinese H-6 was intended to serve as a medium-range bomber for delivering unguided ordnance over land and sea. Production of the H-6 may have stretched up to 30 years and by the 1970s the bomber was modified to carry an anti-ship cruise missile on each wing. These H-6D’s were built in small numbers and a handful got sold to Iraq in the 1980s. But in 2015 the H-6K made its first public appearance to commemorate China’s role in World War Two. At the time it was hailed by state media as a locally made strategic bomber and, without going into detail, boasted new avionics and engines.

The H-6K’s began to fly training missions on the same year it was debuted and these are now being done with astonishing frequency. What makes the H-6K different form the H-6/A/B is its new nose cone replacing the old fashioned bombardier’s cockpit that resembled the one used on the B-29 Superfortress. The H-6K also has two larger engine intakes and three hardpoints installed on each wing.

Another distinction for the H-6K is the absence of separate tail and belly oscillating gun turrets that were permanent features on both the original Tu-16 and H-6. When it comes to flight characteristics the H-6K actually trails the strategic bombers flown by the Russian and US air forces, which is understandable given how dated the airframe’s design is.

What isn’t often pointed out regarding the H-6K’s intended role–delivering cruise missiles beyond Chinese airspace–are its similarities to the earlier H-6D and the Soviet Tu-16K/KS that were flown in the 1960s as a deterrent for the US Navy’s aircraft carrier strike groups. Like the H-6K, the Tu-16K/KS carried air-to-surface missiles on each wing, albeit just two. The Soviets also converted the Tu-16 into electronic warfare and reconnaissance, search and rescue, and refueling aircraft.

The H6-K may not be as advanced as Chinese media claim but if its production numbers are set to replace the current fleet of older H-6A/B/D’s then regional air forces and navies in the Asia-Pacific should be worried. If the PLAAF intend to arm their H-6K’s with, for example, a half dozen CJ-10 cruise missiles each the threat they pose to bases, capital cities and US installations is dire. With a radius exceeding 3,000 kilometers, a flight of three H-6K’s can fly beyond the “first island chain” and launch their payloads at Guam without risk of interception. Imagine the same being done to the US Navy’s 7th Fleet in Japan.

If H-6K’s are deployed in any of China’s artificial islands that support airbases, Southeast Asian countries will have next to zero options dealing with them. There’s still much to learn about what the H-6K can and can’t do. It’s apparently a retrogressive solution to the Chinese air force’s range gap over bodies of water. How soon before the rumored “stealth bomber” from Xian arrives? Until it does, the H-6K is a serious headache for China’s rivals.

A Tu-16K-26 carrying anti-ship cruise missiles. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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