A recent report in a military affairs magazine has shed light on a recent meeting in the Chinese military where the need for a strategic aerial capability was made clear. China already has strategic bombers in its inventory but they will not meet the future military needs of the country. This desire has been known for some time but it is likely that rising tensions in the South China Sea as well as the need to further anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capabilities have served to elevate the importance of the issue. If China is to develop a more capable strategic bomber, defense planners in the region and elsewhere will have to adapt to the new threat.
At a recent meeting, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was redefined as a “strategic force.” In the past, the PLA Second Artillery Corps (SAC) was considered the strategic force of China. The SAC controls PLA strategic nuclear ballistic and conventional missiles and acts as China’s primary strategic deterrent. According to reports, officers also urged the PLAAF to prioritize the development of a long-range strategic bomber to support the strategic component of the air force. Information on the meeting was published in the most recent edition of the Kanwa Defence Review, a Canada based military affairs magazine that focuses on East Asian security, defense, diplomacy, and weapons technology development issues. Citing the Kanwa article, the state-run China Daily newspaper ran a full-page article this week on the topic.
The PLAAF has been seeking for some time a new strategic bomber to replace its existing H-6 bomber. The H-6 even in its newest form can no longer satisfy the needs of the PLAAF and it is believed that the PLAAF desires a bomber with a range of up to 12,070 km. Officers at the meeting reportedly see the need for a new strategic bomber that is capable of striking at the second island chain. The second island chain consists of the islands extending south and east from Japan, to and beyond Guam in the western Pacific Ocean. The ability to strike this far would allow China to prevent deployment of U.S. or other naval forces into western Pacific waters as part of China’s A2AD strategy in the event of an emergency or crisis.
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The H-6K is the newest version of the H-6 which originated as a license-built version of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 bomber back in the late 1950s. The H-6K can carry six KD-20 land attack cruise missiles (LACM) on its wings plus one in its bomb bay as well as a variety of new precision-guided munitions. It is believed to have a combat radius of 3,500 km thanks to modern turbofans and the use of lighter-weight composites in its construction. Its range currently meets the PLA strategic requirement of “active defense” and the H-6K can reportedly strike targets as far as Hawaii and Singapore though there is some dispute over that. The PLAAF operates upward of 140 H-6s in various models while the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) operates 30.
The KD-20 LACM carried by the H-6K is the aerial launch version of the DF-10 land-based cruise missile which first appeared publicly in 2009. The KD-20 extends the lethality of the H-6K bomber with its estimated 2,000 km range. Recently, H-6Ks were involved in PLA exercises in late May and early July near Taiwan with this being the first PLAAF deployment of the H6-K in that region. In May, H-6s also flew over the Miyako Strait near Japan causing concern to Japanese military officials.
China’s need for a new strategic bomber
The H-6K cannot penetrate advanced enemy air defense networks and is subsonic instead of supersonic making it vulnerable to aerial interception. Though it is a decent platform, it is likely that China has reached the limit of what it can do with a 50 year-old airframe design. The PLAAF needs a strategic bomber that is faster, has greater range, and that is capable of carrying a larger weapon load to meet its defense goals.
China is one of three countries that operate strategic bombers, the others being the U.S. and Russia. China’s bombers are by far though the most limited in capability when compared to the U.S. stealth B-2 or the Russian supersonic Tu-160. China did attempt to gain advanced strategic bomber technology from Ukraine though international conventions prevented this. The bomber China sought was the Tu-22M3 Backfire, a Soviet-era supersonic bomber which Ukraine had in its inventory before they were dismantled as part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. China also attempted to purchase this type of aircraft from Russia though was rejected.
Development of a new long range strategic bomber will not be easy for China. The country has no past experience designing and building such an aircraft with the existing H-6 being only a medium range copy of a Russian plane. Regardless, there is a need for China to acquire such an aircraft to meet its defense needs. A long-range strategic bomber would allow China to strike at a further distance than its air force currently can. Gaining such a deterrent would greatly complicate the defense plans of East Asia countries and the U.S. which in a conflict, the U.S. navy would not only be forced to contend with Chinese warships and land-based ballistic missiles but now also aerial launched cruise missiles at a far greater distance from China than before.