Like the U.S.’ B-52, the H-6K is based on a 1950s design that had been refitted with modern electronics so it can launch sophisticated guided missiles capable of flying far and causing great destruction to enemy ships and ground targets.
This Christmas, China sent a record 71 warplanes and drones to threaten Taiwan. As has become an almost daily occurrence over the past year, the planes pushed against Taiwan’s air-defense buffer zones, prompting Taipei to scramble fighter jets and stand ready to fire its air-defense missiles.
A few weeks ago, China sent 18 of its H-6 bombers to buzz Taiwan in one day. Recently, versions of the H-6 bomber have been seen carrying what looks like air-launched versions of known Chinese guided hypersonic ballistic missiles that can fly far and punch big holes in warships and ground targets.
Like the U.S.’s latest B-52 model, the B-52H, the H-6K is based on a design that first flew in the early 1950s. The last B-52 was built in 1964, and since then nearly every part of these bombers — every bolt, rivet and skin plate — had been replaced at least once. China is still producing “new old” H-6 variants, but it is working on developing new bombers, such as the H-20, which looks like a copy of the U.S.’ B-2 stealth bomber. The U.S. still operates 76 of its upgraded B-52 giants, whereas China fields more than 120 H-6 models of various capability and age levels.
The upgraded B-52s and H-6s are both “good enough” long-range bombers based on ancient designs that make up the bulk of their nations’ strategic bomber fleets. The eight-engine B-52H is of course much larger than the two-engine H-6K and can carry a maximum weapons load of 32 tons, whereas China claims the H-6K can carry up to 12 tons, which would be 3 tons more than previous H-6 variants. The B-52 also has a claimed unrefueled combat range of more than 14,000 kilometers, while the H-6K’s maximum combat radius is reported to be just over 3,000 kilometers.
Like the modernized B-52, the H-6K is too slow and too big a target to get close to enemy air defenses, so it’s been modernized to shoot long-range missiles from safe distances. It has six hardpoints under its wings for carrying its typical load of four large and very heavy YJ-12 anti-ship missiles and two electronic warfare pods. The YJ-12 ship-killer missile is a potent supersonic weapon that can fly up to 400 kilometers at speeds of up to Mach 4.
The H-6K already has two newer versions, the air-refuelable H-6N and the maritime-specialist H-6J. These variants have been photographed while carrying what looks like new air-launched versions of the large CM-401 supersonic anti-ship ballistic missile. Little is known about this new air-launched missile — if it is indeed a real missile and not just a mock-up — but the truck-launched CM-401 missile is capable of accelerating to up to Mach 6 and is also thought to be able to “porpoise” up and down as it approaches its target, making it hard for air-defense missiles to hit it.
China seems to also be developing increasingly more advanced ballistic and cruising ship-killer missiles that can fit under the new H-6 variants and can fly farther and faster than ever before. A big challenge for such missiles would be to maintain a target lock on a fast-moving warship as it flies hundreds of kilometers at very high speeds. The new H-6 variants, specifically the H-6K, have been upgraded with advanced radar and other electronics.
However, as the ranges of these H-6 launched missiles increase, the missiles would fly over the horizon, where the H-6 would not be able to see with its radar. Therefore, these missiles would increasingly rely on their own on-board radar and space-based systems — or systems based on hidden platforms like submarines or stealth drones — to find their targets when they finally arrive in the strike zone.
China is currently developing a next-generation stealth bomber, the H-20, which would initially work in tandem with the H-6 variants, and might eventually replace them completely. Until then, these old-looking jets will be the only bombers China has.
Like the B-2 and the almost-flying B-21 stealth bombers, the H-20 should be able to fly into enemy air defense zones without being observed — to get up close and personal with enemy targets — while the non-stealth H-6 would hang back and fire long-range stand-off missiles, just like the B-52.
As it is, the H-6 is as slow and as radar-visible a target as the B-52. Both planes can fly at high subsonic speeds of around 1,100 kilometers per hour, which is around 200 kilometers per hour faster than a Boeing 777 can fly, which is pretty slow compared to modern missile speeds. However, both these old-style platforms can work with space-based platforms and targeting drones to launch missiles that can accurately hit moving targets far away. Currently, the H-6K family of bombers can hit static targets as far away as Hawaii, Guam, Japan, Alaska, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Moscow while flying over the Chinese mainland — inside the safety of China’s air-defense zone.
Caption: Alert5, Wikimedia Commons