China recently deployed one of its H-6 bombers on a long-range patrol of the Nine-Dash Line that it claims marks the extent of its territorial waters in the Pacific Ocean. The flight was made in response to remarks by President-elect Trump suggesting that the United States might abandon its long-standing policy towards Taiwan and recognize the island as an independent country.
As such, the patrol was an almost flattering imitation of the U.S. Air Force’s practice of flying enormous B-52 bombers by countries that have aroused Washington’s ire as a means of broadcasting threat and registering displeasure. Take, for example, a B-52 overflight of waters claimed by China one year ago.
China, Russia and the United States are the only countries to operate long-range strategic bombers in significant numbers. Like the American B-52 or Russian Tu-95 Bear currently in service, the H-6 dates back to the early 1950s. Up to 180 H-6s have been produced over the years, the majority of which continue to serve in the People’s Liberation Air Force (PLAAF) and Naval Air Force. Unlike China’s newer warplanes, the cruise-missile toting bomber has actually been tested in battle.
The H-6 is a Chinese copy of the Tupolev Tu-16 Badger, the Soviet Union’s first jet-powered strategic bomber. China received a few Tu-16s from Russia in 1958–59 and struck a licensed production agreement with Moscow. Beijing was fortunate to receive the Tu-16 productions kits when it did, as relations with the Soviet Union almost entirely collapsed a few years later and it took a while for the Chinese-made production line to get off the ground. While that was in the works, a Tu-16 deployed China’s first air-dropped atomic bomb in 1965.
The first H-6 was produced in 1968 by the Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation, in the northern Chinese city of the same name. Powered by two WP8 turbojets copied from the original Russian AM-30 engines, the H-6 could fly a bit short of the speed of sound at 656 miles per hour, and carried bomb loads ranging between six thousand and eighteen thousand pounds, to a combat radius of 1,100 miles. The thirty-four-meter-long bomber had a crew of four to six, and could fly no higher than forty-two thousand feet.
While the basic production version was just a conventional bomber, a nuclear-capable H-6A aircraft participated in a nuclear gravity bomb tests during the 1970s. More recently, H-6s have been used used to drop conventional bombs on ice blocking the Yellow River.
When the Tu-16 was designed in the 1950s, the intent was for strategic bombers to overfly hostile cities and military installations, and rain gravity bombs—conventional or nuclear—on top of them. The World War II–era roots of the concept were even reflected in the H-6’s defensive armament of six twenty-three-millimeter automatic cannons stationed in the belly, tail and top turret, and a seventh in the aircraft’s “glazed” (glass) nose, intended to shoot up hostile fighters. However, this approach was clearly untenable by the 1960s, as surface-to-air missiles and supersonic jet fighters with long-range radar-guided missiles entered widespread use.
By the 1970s, the PLAAF understood that strategic bombers were unlikely to get close enough to a modern adversary to drop bombs on top of them, and began looking for ways to extend the H-6’s reach. The H-6D variant boasted new radar allowing to target ships with its two deadly wing-mounted C-601 Silkworm anti-shipping missiles. The 6.5-meter C-601, also known as the YJ-6 or the CAS-1 Kraken by NATO, has a range of 150 kilometers and a large 1,130-pound warhead.
Four H-6Ds were exported to Iraq in 1987 along with fifty C-601s, and saw extensive action in 1988 in the bloody Iran-Iraq War, as the two Middle Eastern states flung missiles, mines and bombs at each other’s oil tankers—and various bystanders caught in the crossfire.
The first ship hit by a C-601 was the Iranian bulk freighter Entekhab on February 5, 1988. At least fourteen more oil tankers and bulk carriers were damaged in attacks attributed to Iraqi C-601 missiles, although sources are not always in agreement over which occasions Silkworms were employed. Overall, though, it seems the bulky oil tankers proved fairly resilient to the anti-shipping missiles.
One H-6D was claimed shot down by an Iranian F-14 Tomcat before the war ended. In the 1991 Gulf War, the remaining three H-6s were destroyed U.S. bombs at Al-Taqaddum Air Base. The Egyptian Air Force was the only other foreign operator of the H-6, but retired its aircraft in 2000.
Meanwhile, the PLAAF steadily continued to adapt the H-6 to modern specifications, starting with improved countermeasures and modernized avionics in the ’80s-era H-6E and F.
The PLAAF also deployed H-6s modified for noncombat roles, most notably the HY-6, the PLAAF’s first operational aerial-refueling aircraft. The HY-6U is believed capable of carrying around eighty-five thousand pounds of fuel, according to one analyst—about half the effective fuel load of a U.S. KC-135E tanker—allowing it to support two fighter aircraft on a long-range mission. Other special-role H-6s include the H-6B reconnaissance plane, and the HD-6 electronic warfare platform.
Later developments of the H-6 continued to focus on cruise-missile armament, including the ’90s-era H-6H, designed to launch two land-attack cruise missiles, the H-6G, intended to provide targeting data for ground-launched cruise missiles, and the H-6M missile carrier variant, which can lug four YJ-81 or KD-88 cruise missiles on exterior wing pylons.
Finally, in 2007 Beijing unveiled the most comprehensive upgrade of the H-6K so far, which boasts new Russian D-30KP engines with 25 percent more thrust, ejection seats and a modern glass cockpit with LCD displays. The obsolete transparent nose and tail gunner position were eliminated, replaced with improved radar and defensive countermeasure systems. Other modern systems include infrared and electro-optical sensors and a data link for networking with friendly forces.
Furthermore, the H-6K can carry a heavier underwing loadout of six CJ-10 or CJ-20 cruise missiles with a range of over 900 or 1,500 miles—or alternately, YJ-12 anti-shipping missiles. Its combat radius is extended to around two thousand miles, or even 3,500 miles with inflight refueling. Sixteen H-6Ks have been built so far, and China is reportedly working on a new variant powered by domestically produced WS18 turbofans.
The H-6K’s range and combat load are still not equal to the American B-52—but they don’t have to be to get the job done. It can still fly very long distances while lugging large cruise missiles into firing range of potential targets. Like the B-52, the slow and not at all stealthy H-6 doesn’t want to be anywhere near opposing fighters or SAMs. But thanks to its long-range missiles, it can fire at targets a thousand miles away, giving it a total striking distance of 4,500 miles away from base when supported by inflight refueling.
Interestingly, though the H-6 could in theory carry a nuclear payload, it’s believed that the PLAAF doesn’t field any nuclear air-launched cruise missiles. This may be because Beijing is oriented towards defensive use of nuclear weapons, a strategy that prioritizes platforms is more likely to survive an adversary’s nuclear first strike, such as ground-based and submarine-launched missiles.
Instead, the H-6 could help extend the reach of its conventional strike capability and would be useful in the anti-shipping role. However, while the modernized H-6K may have all the attributes to be an effective maritime strike platform, it has been pointed out that Beijing may lack the extensive surveillance assets to locate and identify hostile ships for an H-6 to attack.
Nonetheless, the H-6’s combat record in 1988 suggests that cruise missile–armed bombers can do plenty of damage, even when not backed up by sophisticated intelligence-gathering capabilities.
On September 3 of this year, Gen. Ma Xiaotian of the PLAAF announced that China was developing a new strategic bomber, but did not clarify if it would be another variant of the H-6 or an entirely new bomber.
As China continues to assert its presence in the Pacific Ocean, any aircraft that can project its power across those long distances will remain relevant—even if they are as long-serving as the H-6.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.