This week, an aviation equipment expert with the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) told the state-owned China Daily that China now has the capability to carry out all-weather, long-range precision strikes. China has been touting the capabilities of its H-6K bombers in recent months though it is no secret that Beijing desires newer, longer-range and more modern strategic bombers. This assertion by a PLAAF agent as for now is nothing more than what it is, a comment. It waits to be seen if the PLAAF bomber force is truly capable of what is claimed. Regardless, the U.S. and China’s regional neighbors should take note as any advancement in the long-range delivery of precision munitions by the PLAAF will make the region far deadlier and complicate U.S. defense strategies.
The statements about the PLAAF strategic bomber capabilities came from Fu Qianshao. Previously Fu has commented on the Dark Sword UAV, possible J-10 fighter exports, and has at least two books published by the in-house publisher of the PLA, one on UAVs and the other on missile development. Fu told the China Daily, “The fact that our H-6K bombers have performed several long-distance drills far into the Pacific Ocean indicates that the H-6K fleet has become capable of conducting various operations such as long-range precision strikes.”
Fu added, “In the past, our bombers could only deliver airdropped bombs and so were unable to conduct precision attacks, but the H-6K, with the adoption of some of our most advanced aeronautic technologies, is able to carry and launch air-to-surface cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles, which means it can take out multiple targets on the ground or at sea within one mission”. He added “The PLA has defined its air force as a strategic force and pledged to obtain offensive capability for it. An air force with strategic aspirations must be able to perform long-range precision strike operations, so the H-6K is undoubtedly a valuable asset to the PLA Air Force.”
The long-distance drills Fu refers to are undoubtedly those recently mentioned by the PLA Daily. That publication reported that H-6Ks in a recent exercise flew several thousand kilometers to an unidentified airspace and using precision weapons, destroyed multiple targets. These bombers came from a unit in the Guangzhou Military Command, the southernmost command of the PLA’s seven military regions and the one which covers the South China Sea. It is likely the H-6Ks came from either the 24th Air Regiment based at Leiyang or the 22nd Air Regiment based at Shaodong, both of which are part of the PLAAF 8th Bomber Division.
On August 14th, China’s state-media revealed that H-6Ks flew 1,000 kilometers beyond the “First Island Chain” which extends into the South China Sea and beyond Taiwan. Other long-range training missions have been undertaken as well. In the most recent exercise, it was noted that it was undertaken during bad weather and the bombers broke through the enemy’s “electromagnetic blockage” and used sophisticated maneuvers to clear the “enemy defense.” Where this exercise took place is anyone’s guess and one would be interested to know exactly what type of sophisticated maneuvers a lumbering bomber is capable of.
China’s Xian H-6K
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. Essentially the H-6K incorporates a platform designed over 50 years ago and is equipped with modern engines, avionics, and electronics. According to Janes and the Pentagon, 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. In late May and early July, H-6Ks were involved in PLA exercises near Taiwan with this being the first PLAAF deployment of the H-6K in that region. In May, H-6s also flew over the Miyako Strait near Japan causing concern to Japanese military officials.
Among the PLAAFs H-6 fleet, the H-6K version is the most modern and is China’s premier strategic bomber. With that said, its capabilities lag behind those of the strategic bombers found in U.S. and Russian air force inventories. The H-6K cannot penetrate advanced enemy air defense networks and is subsonic instead of supersonic making it vulnerable to aerial interception. It has a large radar cross-section and would be easily spotted by opponent radar systems. Additionally, to achieve its maximum range requires aerial refueling by also, less than stealthy tanker aircraft. The ability to carry out long-range precision strikes is also highly dependent on the intelligence available to the PLAAF and the air-to-ground radar capabilities of the H-6K itself.
In any case, the ability of the H-6K to carry six long-range anti-ship or land attack missiles at great distance does pose a threat to U.S. warships operating in the Pacific and bases at Guam for example. The successfully deployment of advanced precision weapons rather than “dumb” unguided munitions from its bombers is certainly a big step for the PLAAF. As long as the PLAAF utilizes the limited current platform, the H-6K, the advantages are somewhat diminished though.