XIAN H6N

“Just a nice Picture…!” Another picture has erupted on the internet showing a very nice side view of two new Xian H-6N strategic bombers of the well-known People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). The two aircraft were captured during their rehearsal for the air parade over Beijing (China), celebrating seventy years People’s Republic of China. The aircraft shown by the PLAAF carried the KD-20 ALCM and the KD-63 standoff attack missile. The serials 55x3x still poses questions where this aircraft is operated from. At least during the parade that seems to be done by the PLAAF’s Central Theatre Command in Beijing.

A view of the underside of one of the H-6Ns seen flying over Beijing ahead of the 70th-anniversary parade, showing the semi-recessed area with a hard point for a very large missile. Previous reports have indicated that an air-launched derivative of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, reportedly called the CH-AS-X-13, will be the primary weapon for the H-6N.

An annotated image showing what appears to be a protective “plug” in place on one of the H-6Ns for when it is not carrying a missile on the centerline.

Pictures have surfaced from China’s internet supposedly showing a new derivative of the People’s Liberation Air Force’s Xian H-6 bomber. This incarnation of the H-6, dubbed the H-6N, is designed to carry one weapon in particular—the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.

Xian H-6N/H-6X1 – Air-launched ballistic missile carrier in service as of 2019. This variant has a semi-recessed area hard point underneath its fuselage. It is capable of mounting an air-derivative of the Dongfeng-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, with an added 3,700 mile range including aerial refueling. It may be also possible that the modification is to enable carriage of the WZ-8 high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicle.

A anti-ship ballistic missile carrying H-6N could extend China’s anti-access bubble even farther and put US naval strike groups at greater risk.

The base H-6 is itself a derivative of the Tu-16 Badger, a Soviet designed aircraft from the dawn of jet age that took its first flight 65 years ago. China started building the Tu-16 under license as the H-6 in 1959. Since then the country has evolved the H-6 design somewhat radically, using new building materials and techniques, advanced avionics and updated turbofan engines to persistently modernize what is a relatively ancient design.

A trio of H-6Ns has been seen flying over Beijing practicing ahead of a massive military parade that will be part of ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Communist state on Oct. 1, 2019. Experts say that there at least four of these aircraft presently assigned to a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) bomber brigade in China’s Central Theater Command (CTC) region. Other pictures of the parade preparations have already shown that there will be a number of significant reveals during the procession.

Reports about the H-6N and its ballistic-missile launching mission first began to emerge in 2017. Xi’an Aircraft International Corporation’s H-6, a derivative of the Soviet-era Tu-16 Badger, has been the centerpiece of China’s bomber force since the 1970s.

In 2009, the H-6K variant, a significant redesign from the original aircraft optimized as a carrier for long-range anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, entered service. The H-6N is a further outgrowth of this earlier missile carrier version.

The most notable change between the N and K is the complete elimination of the bomb bay on the N and the addition of semi-recessed area with a hard point for a large missile. This is similar in some general respects to the ability of Russia’s Tu-22M Backfire bombers to carry a single Kh-22 or Kh-32 anti-ship cruise missile in a semi-recessed mount under its central fuselage.

There are no pictures from the parade preparations that show the H-6Ns carrying a payload and some of them appear to have a plug installed that gives the fuselage its normal profile when a missile is not loaded. So, it remains unclear what type of weapon, or weapons, the Chinese intend to employ on these aircraft.

The bomber’s ability to carry over-sized payloads may ensure it remains a useful tool in the PLAAF arsenal even as newer stealthier bombers begin entering service in the future. The U.S. Air Force similarly intends to keep flying its aging, Cold War-era B-52 bombers for decades to come for this very reason. Air-launched ballistic missiles are also becoming an increasingly popular concept around the world.

The H-6N also prominently features an aerial refueling probe on its nose, which could further expand its flexibility and reach, especially when it comes to engaging targets at the very edges of areas China claims as its integral national territory, including in the South China Sea, and beyond. The aerial refueling capability may also just be necessary to ensure that the aircraft can lug the weapon to the appropriate altitude and launch point.

Whatever the case, the H-6N has the potential to be another formidable addition to China’s already extensive anti-access and area denial capabilities, especially in the South China Sea. Just in January 2019, the PLARF conducted drills that appeared intended to demonstrate China’s ability to conduct extremely long-range anti-ship attacks on potential opponents in the South China Sea. Then between June and July, there were reports that Chinese forces conducted live-fire drills that involved firing ballistic missiles into that region, further underscoring the threat.

In addition, China’s ability to detect and track naval threats, as well as potential opponents in the air, under the water, and in space, are rapidly improving, as are its command and control capabilities. When it comes to spotting ships, the Chinese can increasingly call on manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, as well as shore-based assets, including over-the-horizon radars. This provides the kind of network essential for long-range anti-ship ballistic missile strikes.

In July, weeks after the Chinese missile exercises, there was an unconfirmed report from Taiwan’s Up Media that one of the PLAAF’s Xianglong, or Soar Eagle, high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) drone had shadowed the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Antietam as it sailed through the Taiwan Strait. Soar Eagle is just one of a number of HALE unmanned aircraft that the Chinese have been developing in recent years.

With regards to the H-6N and its weapon loadouts, we may learn more during the Oct. 1 parade, especially if one of the aircraft flies over onlookers in Tiananmen Square carrying a payload of some kind. With this official debut, we will almost certainly be seeing more of these missile carriers in various settings, including training exercises, that will help illuminate more details about its exact capabilities, as well.

China has also adapted the H-6 for a huge variety of roles, including reconnaissance, electronic warfare, aerial refueling, and a wide array of testbed duties, in addition to its role as a bomber and cruise missile carrier. Now the H-6N, the latest variant of the most modern H-6 version, the H-6K bomber, will supposedly take on one of the most exotic roles of all—hauling anti-ship ballistic missiles to launching points far from Chinese shores.

Simulation: DF-21D ‘Chinese Carrier Killer’

DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile

China’s DF-21D remains a somewhat shadowy weapon when it comes to its true abilities. Nevertheless it is now widely regarded as a game-changing anti-access/area-denial weapon system. The DF-21D is a conventionally armed, ground-launched medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), with a range thought to be around 800 to 900 miles. How it differs from standard MRBMs is that it can maneuver dynamically during reentry and has the ability to target large vessels during the terminal phase of its flight.

In essence, it is a carrier killer that engages at hypersonic speeds and steep angles of descent, making most traditional defensive weaponry useless against it. Even advanced anti-ballistic missile capabilities would be hard pressed to intercept a DF-21D depending on its stage of flight.

The DF-21D seems like an amazing weapon system—one that could help keep US carrier strike groups far enough from Chinese shores to make their fighter aircraft and cruise useless. But the system is only as good as the targeting information provided to it. The DF-21D’s ability to track and engage its target is limited to its terminal attack phase via the use of radar and possibly infrared sensors installed aboard its reentry vehicle. Initial targeting and mid-course updates are supplied by external sources and data-linked to the launching platform just before flight and possibly to the missile during its midcourse phase of flight.

Back in 2010, when the DF-21D supposedly became operational, China’s ability to target vessels far out to sea in the great watery expanses of the Pacific was limited. Today the country’s surveillance capabilities in space, on the ground, in the air, at sea, and under the sea have improved substantially. Any one or a combination of these sensors, which includes everything from ground based over-the-horizon radar, to surveillance satellites, to high altitude and long endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft, can provide the targeting data that can get the DF-21D in the right area for executing its deadly terminal attack on a ship. 

With maturing and diversified sensor and hardened long-range communications networks beginning to coalesce, China may be more limited by the DF-21D’s range than by the ability to target ships far from Chinese shores. The Chinese military seems to be attacking this issue in two key ways beyond the fielding of more capable nuclear fast attack submarines.

First is the supposed development of an anti-ship variant of the DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM). The standard land attack DF-26 missile is nicknamed the “Guam Killer’ because it would be used to barrage the American island stronghold and other US bases in the region during a conflict. It sports a range of roughly 2,000 to 2,500 miles. So an anti-ship variant of the DF-26 would likely have over double the range of the DF-21D.

It still isn’t clear what the operational status is of the anti-ship variant of the DF-26, but it is clearly an ongoing program for the Chinese military. Seeing that the DF-26 anti-ship missile concept would not be feasible without robust long-range naval targeting capabilities, its very existence is an indication that China has progressed significantly in this area over the last seven years or so.

The other way China can extend its anti-ship ballistic missile capability is to take the DF-21D and deliver it to launch points far out to sea via aircraft. Although having heavy aircraft launch ballistic missiles is not common, it is not unprecedented. The idea was toyed with during the Cold War and today C-17s drop ballistic missiles as targets for anti-ballistic missile tests. Still, there are no operational combat systems that do this, but then again the job of creating a giant anti-access bubble around one’s country and attacking ships with ballistic missiles is somewhat different than using the technique to launch traditional nuclear-tipped ballistic weapons.

CH-AS-X-13 Version

The CH-AS-X-13, will be the primary weapon for the H-6N. A publicly released U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report has said the standard DF-21D has a range of more than 930 miles when ground-launched.

In 2018, The Diplomat reported, citing anonymous sources, that this new missile, which uses lightweight composite materials would have a range of more than 1,860 miles. Air-launching the weapon could also help increase its range by eliminating the need to first boost tens of thousands of feet in the air.

The DF-21D features a maneuverable, conventionally-armed reentry vehicle and the CH-AS-X-13 could leverage its basic design. The existing ground-launched missile reportedly has a limited ability to locate and zero in on a particular target during the terminal phase of flight using radar, as well as possibly infrared sensors, on the reentry vehicle. It may also be able to course-correct during the mid-course portion of its flight based on the information it receives from other sources via data link.

It is unclear whether or not the CH-AS-X-13 will carry a conventional or nuclear-armed warhead and it may be dual-capable. “China is developing two air-launched ballistic missiles, one of which may carry nuclear weapons,” U.S. Army Major General Robert Ashley, head of DIA, said in 2018. He had also made a virtually identical comment in 2017. A nuclear warhead would reduce the need for especially precise targeting and could make the weapon useful for taking out larger groups of targets at once, including entire U.S. Navy carrier strike groups.

The CH-AS-X-13 will also likely leverage China’s increasing experience with long-range ballistic weapons with maneuvering warheads, in general, which is also a product of efforts to help defeat any potential missile defenses. It’s worth noting that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) already operates the larger DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), seen in the video below, which also reportedly has anti-ship capabilities. In 2017, China also revealed a version of the smaller, short-range DF-16, the DF-16G, with a maneuvering warhead.

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