In recent days, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has stepped up its activities in the South China Sea.
For the first time ever, the PLAAF has landed Xian H-6K bombers on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel archipelago. The Pentagon decried the Chinese move as a part of “China’s continued militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea,” U.S. Pacific Command spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said.
The H-6K—which is a highly upgraded Chinese copy of the antiquated 1950s-era Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-16 Badger—is the PLAAF’s mainstay bomber. But while the Badger design is a Soviet-era antique, internally, the Chinese H-6K is a modern aircraft with a much-improved airframe, sensors and propulsion.
The new H-6K variant replaces the old Xian WP8 turbojets found on pervious H-6 versions with new Russian Soloviev D-30-KP2 turbofans. The D-30 low bypass two shaft turbofan—which some might call a leaky turbojet—has been modified for use on a number of applications ranging from the Mach 2.83 capable Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor to the Ilyushin Il-76 military transport to the Il-62 airliner to the new Xian Y-20 strategic airlifter. While the D-30—having been originally designed to power the MiG-31—is not an ideal engine for a subsonic bomber or transport aircraft, it is an enormous improvement over the primitive WP8 turbojets that were originally installed on the H-6.
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With the new non-afterburning D-30 engines installed in combination with the new composite materials used in the airframe, the H-6K bomber’s range is increased by some thirty percent over previous H-6 variants. The modernized bomber now has a combat radius of roughly 2,200 miles. Avionics-wise, the H-6K dispenses with steam gauges and incorporates a full glass cockpit. The bomber also incorporates a new long-range surface search radar and an electro-optical targeting pod to find its targets.
Unlike previous iterations of the Badger, the H-6K was designed primarily as a cruise missile carrier. The jet can carry six CJ-10K or YJ-12 long-range land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles on its wing and potentially several more inside its weapons bays. It is also thought to carry a host of precision-guided weapons. That makes it a threat to not only U.S. and allied shipping, but also land bases.
The CJ-10K land-attack cruise missile has a range of over 930 nautical miles and carries a 1,100-pound warhead. The weapon—which draws heavily from the Soviet-designed Raduga Kh-55 cruise missile that China acquired from Ukraine—has many of the advanced features found on the American Tomahawk and the Russian Kalibr. Indeed, the CJ-10K guidance package is thought to include combination of inertial navigation system, satellite navigation, terrain contour matching and digital scene-mapping area correlation. There is also an YJ-100 anti-ship variant of the missile that has a range of about 430 nautical miles.
For short-range anti-ship attacks, the H-6K carries the potent YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missile. “The YJ-12 poses a number of a number of security concerns for U.S. naval forces in the Pacific and is considered the ‘most dangerous anti-ship missile China has produced thus far,’” according the Missile Defense Advocacy group. “The danger posed by the YJ-12 comes from its range of 400 km, making it the longest-ranged ACBM ever engineered, and its ability to travel at high rates of speed (up to Mach 3). This makes it difficult for Aegis Combat Systems and SM-2 surface-to-air missiles that protect U.S. carrier strike groups to identify and engage the missile since it can be launched beyond their engagement ranges, which greatly reduces the U.S. Navy’s time to react. Protection against the YJ-12 is even more difficult due to its cork-screw-like turns which allow it to evade final defenses. With the combination of Chinese Flankers, YJ-12’s can potentially reach up to 1,900km which could cause an even larger problem for the U.S. than China’s DF-21D ASBM. Deployment of the YJ-12 and the development of related ASCMs also demonstrates China’s desire to field anti-access and area denial capabilities in case of future conflict.”
Ultimately, the H-6K is just a launch platform, it does not have to be a spectacular performer like the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit or B-21 Raider to be dangerous. Indeed, it is the H-6K’s extremely potent long-range missile armament is the real threat rather than the aircraft itself. But the H-6K is just one component of a family of Chinese anti-access systems including anti-ship ballistic missiles that China is developing to keep U.S. forces at bay. The bomber will be used with other Chinese A2/AD forces, and it that role, it pose a serious danger to American interests in the Pacific.