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China’s “New” Bomber

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on February 7th, 2007
ARTICLES

In early January 2007 Internet images emerged of what appears to be a new version of China’s Xian H-6 medium bomber, a copy of the Russian Tupolev Tu-16 which first flew in April 1952. Its two salient features include larger engine air intakes, indicative of a larger or even new more powerful engine, and six wing-mounted pylons. These are initially carrying new cruise missiles, which very likely are new Chinese-designed Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs), but in the future may also carry new precision guided munitions (PGMs). These modifications both modernize and significantly increase the strike potential of the 1950s-era H-6, much as the U.S. has done for the Boeing B-52, a bomber of similar vintage. Despite an unimpressive service record, a recent production revival for the H-6 demonstrates a renewed People’s Liberation Army commitment to long-range strike aircraft for "Local War" and emerging "Power-Projection" missions—to possibly include space warfare. China’s future investment in bomber aviation will be more telling.

 
 
“New” H-6 Variant: This early January 2007 Internet image is the first indication that China has produced a new version of the H-6 intended to deliver new LACMs, and perhaps additional new hi-tech weapons. Source: Chinese Internet

Xian "Hongzhaji" H-6

The Hongzhaji-6 (Bomber-6), or Hong-6/H-6 has served in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) since 1959. Despite its obsolescence, to include a World War II style glass nose and tail-gunner station, the H-6 has served in a wide range of roles, from nuclear and conventional bomber, to naval strike platform, tanker, reconnaissance/electronic warfare, UAV-launcher, engine test-bed, and strategic cruise missile launcher. In the future new versions of the H-6 may be used to carry new air-launched space launch vehicles carrying anti-satellite weapons.

In early 1956, at the height of the first Sino-Soviet alliance, the former Soviet Union agreed to give China the ability to manufacture the Tupolev Tu-16 (NATO code name Badger) medium bomber. The first H-6 assembled from Soviet-made kits was delivered to the PLAAF in September 1959. It was a Soviet-parts built H-6 which was modified and later used to test China’s first thermonuclear bomb in May 1966. But the Sino-Soviet split delayed H-6 production. The first Chinese-produced version was not completed until 1966. A subject of continual upgrading, in 1975 work began on the anti-ship missile carrying H-6D naval strike variant, which did not enter PLA Naval Air Force service until 1985. In the mid-1990s U.S. intelligence detected that some H-6s had been converted to carry aerial refueling hose-drogue unit (HDU) pods on the outer wings. It has subsequently been assessed that PLAAF and PLANAF H-6s have been so converted. These refuel Shenyang J-8IID fighters in PLAAF and PLANAF regiments, and more recently have refueled at least one Chengdu J-10 modified for aerial fueling.

 
 
Soviet Progenitor: A Tupolev Tu-16 seen at Russia’s famous Monino aerospace museum in August 2003. Credit: RD Fisher

Small numbers of H-6 bombers were sold to Iraq and Egypt, with the later using theirs during a four-day war with against Libya in 1977[1]—the only known combat usage for the H-6. Egypt retired its H-6s in 2000.

PLA and Foreigners Not Impressed

While contributing to the PLA’s initial nuclear deterrent missions, the lackluster performance of the H-6, plus the lack of a successor due to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and self-imposed isolation from the Soviet Union, forced the PLA to attempt radical modifications for the H-6. In the late 1970s at least one H-6 was modified to be powered by four British Rolls Royce Spey engines, two in newly designed pods placed on mid-wing pylons. This solution proved unsatisfactory and was not adopted. Furthermore, the H-6 was never used operationally by the PLAAF, save to bomb ice jams on rivers. In 1995 a RAND study on the PLAAF funded by the U.S. Air Force aptly noted, "…the PLAAF has never demonstrated that it can effectively employ its strategic bomber force."[2]

H-6 Revival

Regardless of the view in Washington in the mid-1990s, it is now apparent that during this timeframe the PLA was renewing its commitment to the H-6. After a failed attempt to purchase the more advanced Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire in the early 1990s[3], the PLA apparently decided that the advantages of its "indigenous" bomber, with its established production infrastructure and low cost, justified a program to "informationalize" successive new versions of the H-6. This helped meet new PLA doctrinal goals by producing a higher technology weapon to win "Local Wars Under High Tech Conditions," like against Taiwan, but that did not necessarily assume an all-out confrontation with the United States.

The principle means of doing so has been shift the locus of strike power from the H-6 bomber platform to increasingly more sophisticated, or information-intensive, air-launched missiles. It should be noted that in doing so, the PLAAF was gaining an edge on its Second Artillery rivals by offering the PLA leadership more accurate long-range strike weapons than the Second Artillery’s high-profile DF-15 and DF-11 short-range ballistic missiles.

"H-6H"

The first new H-6 version to enter PLAAF service, very likely at the end of the 1990s, is called the "H-6H." Its salient features are modifications to carry two wing-mounted YJ-63 LACMs, the first such indigenous missile to give the PLAAF a tactical precision strike capability. The YJ-63 was first reported in March 2000 to be a 200km range modification of the large C-601 anti-ship missile.[4] Subsequent Internet imagery of this missile indicates that it uses an optical sensor, very likely for terminal guidance, although satellite or inertial navigation guidance may also be employed. The H-6H also has a small radome in the underside of the rear fuselage that would be consistent with a data-link to guide the YJ-63. This configuration is similar to the Tupolev Tu-16K-10 which first flew in 1958.[5] This solution, however, has its drawbacks. The YJ-62 remains dependent upon missile operators in the H-6, which if attacked or jammed, would prevent the missile from fulfilling its mission. Nevertheless, if used with shock and cunning, perhaps as early as 1998 or 1999, the H-6/YJ-63 combination gave the PLA a tool to attack critical strategic targets like the entrances to the large tunnels near Hualien that Taiwan had built to hide its air forces from initial PLA attack.

 
 
First LACM Carrier: The H-6H likely entered service in the late 1990s to carry the PLAAF’s first long-range LACM, the YJ-63. Credit: Chinese Internet

"H-6M"

Hidden in a wall video from the AVIC-1 consortium shown at the November 2002 Zhuhai airshow was a brief glimpse of a new version of the Xian H-6, which when studied indicated it was newly produced, and equipped with four missiles on wing pylons. Soon after the show Asian military sources confirmed to the author that Xian had recently resumed production of the then 50 year old bomber design. Further AVIC video snips also added to the impression of the production revival, but this time to include new composite material components that would reduce airframe weight. At the 2004 Zhuhai show a Xian Co. video also showed a group of these new H-6 bombers just outside the production facility, and by 2005 Internet images began to appear of the new 4-pylon versions in markings indicative of PLA Naval Air Force regiments.

At this point the new missiles equipping this version have not been identified. They are closer in size to the YJ-82/83 class anti-ship cruise missile and appear to feature X-configuration cruciform wings. This could be a new 180km range version of the turbojet powered YJ-82/C-802A revealed in mid-2006. It may also be designated YJ-85.[6] Additionally, it could also be an air-launched version of the estimated 300km range YJ-83/C-803, which is thought to feature a Mach 1+ terminal speed to help defeat ship defenses.

 
 
First Indication of Production Revival: This grainy photo from an AVIC-1 video at the 2002 Zhuhai show was the first indication that China had resumed production of the H-6. Credit: AVIC-1 via RD Fisher

"H-6K"

From the vague internet image that appeared during the first week of January, it appears that the "H-6K," as it is called, would constitute the most ambitious H-6 derivative to date. One Chinese source suggests this variant began development in 2000.[7] Its new larger engine intake would indicate the presence of a new and more powerful engine, the first such successful modification for the H-6 since the attempts of the 1970s. Some internet reports speculate that the new engine may be the 12,000kg (26,445lbs) thrust Aviadvigatel D-30KP turbofan[8], which also powers the Ilyushin Il-76 transport, compared to H-6’s the existing 9,500kg thrust Wopen WP-8 turbojet. If true, the higher thrust and fuel efficiency of this turbofan engine would enable both greater payload and greater range performance. The H-6 is now credited with a 1,800 to 2,200km combat radius. While the new engine remains as yet unknown, it is reasonable to speculate that D-30 class engines, aerodynamic refinements, plus added fuel in the weapons bay could easily extend the new H-6’s combat radius to 3,000km, or more.[9]

 
 
“H-6K” Model: This photo appears consistent with the PLA practice of building models of its weapons systems, and may indicate the new front-fuselage features of the “H-6.” Credit: Chinese Internet

At the same time of the fuzzy Internet image of the actual bomber, there was another image revelation of what appeared to be an "official" model of the H-6K, which featured, after 54 years, a conventional front fuselage, with solid nose for a clear housing of radar and other electronics and redesigned more conventional cockpit area.

Also revealed for the first time in the "H-6K" picture is the air-launched version of China’s new Land Attack Cruise Missile (LACM). Asian sources indicate that China is producing two families of new long-range LACMs. A ground launched model is now deployed with the Second Artillery, with over 100 now facing Taiwan according to its military officials.[10] A second type is being developed for the PLA Navy and the PLA Air Force. This type is likely based on the YJ-62/C-602 anti-ship cruise missile revealed in 2006. The export model anti-ship missile is credited with a 280km range, though the model now equipping the new No. 170 Luyang-II class air defense destroyer likely has a much longer range. The LACM model now seen on the H-6, and a similar version likely to equip the new Type 093 nuclear attack submarine, may have a range between 1,000 and 2,000kms. Similar to the U.S. Tomahawk in size and shape, to include use of a "pinched" nose to enhance stealth as seen on the Tomahawk Block IV[11], the PLA LACM likely also uses a combination of inertial, satellite navigation and radar guidance systems to ensure very high accuracy.

Future One: PGMs and Space

From the H-6K is it possible to consider three future steps for the PLA’s long-range bomber forces. The first would be potential modifications to the H-6K to better enable precision strike and even space warfare. The redesigned forward fuselage of the H-6K leaves room for the introduction of new targeting optics, either integrated into the fuselage, or even added in a targeting pod. This variant’s ability to use digital data from onboard or off-board sensors is indicated by its apparent revised cockpit which makes use of 6 digital multi-function displays.[12] This plus expected new more powerful radar could potentially allow the H-6K to perform all-weather targeting for new navigation satellite guided or laser-guided precision guided munitions (PGMs). At the 2006 Zhuhai show Chinese companies Louyang and CASIC revealed new navigation satellite guided bombs, with Louyang also revealing its new laser-guided bomb. These are initially featured in 500kg and 250kg sizes[13], although China can be expected to move to smaller bombs in the future. With the use of four external pylons plus bomb bay carriage, it is reasonable to expect the H-6K to carry 14-20 of the 500kg size PGMs. The tactical significance is that the combination of large bomber and high PGM payload will give PLA commanders a long endurance "aerial artillery" platform able to rain down attacks in all weather conditions, much as U.S. B-52s and other PGM equipped bombers do today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 
 
 
 
H-6 PGM Carrier?: It should be expected that the PLA will soon, if not already, modify its new “H-6K” to carry new Chinese-made PGMs. Louyang’s LS-6 and CASIC’s FT-1 navsat guided bombs were revealed at the 2006 Zhuhai show. The likely digitized cockpit for the H-6K is seen in a third picture. Credit: Chinese Internet

A second new mission for the H-6K suggested by revelations at the 2006 Zhuhai show is space warfare. At Zhuhai the China Aerospace Corporation revealed its new Air Launched Launch Vehicle (ALLV), a solid fuel airborne space launch vehicle launched from an H-6 bomber. The ALLV is very similar to the U.S. Orbital Sciences Co.’s Pegasus air launches space launch vehicle. The ALLV’s advertised payload for commercial missions is 50kgs into Low Earth Orbit. But inasmuch as the "commercial" KT-1 space launch vehicle was used as the basis for the anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon demonstrated successfully on January 11, 2007, it stands to reason that the PLA would also be interested in using the ALLV for military missions.[14] An ALLV modified for ASAT missions would offer a more flexible than the KT-1, which though mobile, does not yet have the option for rapid deployment to a proper target satellite intercept launch point offered by H-6 carriage. With a larger booster stage or strap-on boosters, the ALLV might also be useful against higher Polar Orbit satellite targets.

 
 
 
H-6 Space Warrior?: Like the “commercial” KT-1 space launch vehicle, the new commercial ALLV may form the basis for an anti-satellite weapon, this time carried by the H-6 bomber. Credit: Chinese Internet

Future Two: New Manned Bomber

China’s revival of the H-6 and the re-commitment of the PLA to long-range strike aviation begs the inevitable question: when will the PLA purchase or even produce a successor the venerable H-6? In about the 2003 time frame is appears that Russia decided to sell China the Tu-22M3 Backfire, reversing the reluctance of the early 1990s. The Backfire is capable of supersonic speeds, has a 4,000km combat radius and can carry a range of missile or precision bomb ordinance. Foreign military sources told the author in mid-2005 that Russia and China were actually negotiating such a sale.[15] Russia had just slated two regiments of Tu-22M3s for retirement, which apparently were then available for sale. Sales speculation also followed the Tu-22M3 when it participated in the unprecedented August 2005 Russia-China combined arms "Peace Mission 2005" exercises in China. However, to date there has been no subsequent reporting that would indicate that China is taking action on the Russian offer, much as India is expected to purchase a small number of Tu-22M3s for its Naval Air Force. The reasons could include expected high purchase and maintenance costs for this out-of-production bomber, satisfaction with new versions of the H-6, or the possibility that China is making progress with an indigenous successor design.

 
 
Backfire Option: Despite a recent Russian sales campaign, there are no reports yet indicating that China is ready to purchase the very capable Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber. Photo from Tupolev display at the 2004 Zhuhai Airshow. Credit: RD Fisher

For many years there have been rumors of a new Chinese bomber project, sometimes called "H-9," which has been described variously as a wholly indigenous program, or one that draws extensively on former Soviet programs that were discontinued during the 1990s, like the Sukhoi T-60S medium bomber project. The T-60S reportedly would have been a stealthy supersonic bomber with a 5,000km range.[16] But again, Chinese secrecy precludes any definitive determination that the PLA is developing such a bomber.

Nevertheless, China’s interest in stealth technology is well documented and there is some evidence that China is developing stealthy strike aircraft. At the 1998 Zhuhai show a Chinese company revealed its work on stealth coatings for aircraft and ships. China is believed to be applying such technology to current and future combat aircraft.[17] In addition to rumors China acquired stealth technology from a U.S. F-117 stealth fighter downed in 1999, in November 2006 the U.S. government accused former Northrop Grumman engineer Noshir Gowadia of being paid at least $2 million by China for his U.S. taxpayer funded research which helped develop the infrared suppression technology which significantly contributes to the overall stealth capability of the $1.15 to $2.2 billion Northrop Grumman B-2A Spirit bomber. While U.S. government lawyers say Gowadia’s data was used to help China build a stealthy cruise missile[18], this technology could also be applied to aircraft.

At the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow the AVIC-1 consortium released the latest version of its aircraft history line-up, sometimes depicted in a book or as a large wall graphic, but was issued in November 2006 as part of a 2007 calendar. While the chance for disinformation is always present, this document has traditionally represented the most minimum level of classification of what AVIC-1 is willing to tell Chinese people and the world about its history. The 2006 version, however, contained two new images: an apparent stealthy twin-engine strike fighter and what appeared to be an experimental unmanned combat aircraft (UCAV). While the image is unclear, the stealthy fighter utilizes over-wing air intakes with apparent stealth features, and may use a delta wing, all which would contribute to its stealth. It cannot be determined whether the aircraft represents an experimental or now operational program, but the AVIC-1 document does indicate its development may extend back to the mid-to-early 1990s. Yet, there is a high probability this aircraft does exist, and the technologies developed for it may also contribute to China’s development of larger bomber aircraft.

 
 
AVIC-1 Mysteries: A seemingly nondescript AVIC-1 calendar issued at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow contained what may be two revelations, a new stealthy attack aircraft program and a possible unmanned combat aircraft technology demonstrator. Credit: AVIC-1

Future Three: New Unmanned Bomber

The 2006 Zhuhai show also featured for the first time new concept models for potential Chinese UAVs and UCAVs. Of particular note was the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s Dark Sword, an apparent supersonic canard-delta UCAV which an associated placard stating it was intended for anti-air combat missions. This revelation came as a surprise, as Shenyang or other Chinese companies to date have revealed nothing about such advanced UCAV design work. In contrast it appears that despite early enthusiasm, the United States is delaying plans for building anti-air UCAVs, instead concentrating on less demanding surveillance or ground attack missions. The U.S. Air Force will apparently consider manned and unmanned designs for new bomber called for by the latest Quadrennial Review by 2018.[19] Barring a Chinese breakthrough in computer and data-link technologies that would truly replace the "man-in-the-loop," it also remains probable that China will also develop attack-dedicated UCAVs before air-to-air combat UCAVs.

 
 
Dark Sword Mystery: Chinese spokesmen would not divulge any details about the development or planned performance of Shenyang’s concept UVAC, called “Dark Sword.” Credit: Chinese Internet

However, according to several sources who attended the Zhuhai show, Chinese officials rebuffed repeated attempts to query these new UAVs. As with the recent January 11 anti-satellite interception, Chinese authorities appear content to simply demonstrate a new level of military capability with little to no deference to transparency, so as to generate fear or deterrence. The inclusion of an apparent UCAV demonstrator in the aforementioned AVIC-1 document, however, does give some credibility to China’s UCAV ambitions. While the image is unclear, the AVIC-1 document’s UCAV appears to be similar in size and shape to the European EADS Barracuda, a small jet-powered UCAV technology demonstrator that first flew in May 2006.[20] Again, it cannot be determined whether this UCAV program exists, but its inclusion in the AVIC-1 documents makes this a high probability. As such, it is necessary to consider that China is making progress in mastering the technologies necessary to make an eventual unmanned bomber.

 
 
China Not To Far Behind?: A Northrop Grumman concept for a new supersonic manned or unmanned medium bomber revealed in 2006. China may not be far behind in developing similar concepts. Credit: RD Fisher

Conclusion

After decades of reliable though lackluster service, the People’s Liberation Army has re-embraced the venerable Xian H-6 bomber, producing new versions far better equipped to contribute to the PLA’s goals of building an "informationalized" battle force. In a manner justly comparable to the U.S. B-52, the H-6 has been upgraded to carry deadly long-range cruise missiles and follow up modifications could turn the H-6 into a PGM carrying aerial artillery platform. In addition, the future employment of the H-6 for launching new space-launch vehicles indicates it may play a role in future PLA space warfare plans.

Should initial reports prove correct, new engines in the latest "H-6K" version offer the potential for creating a platform with a 3,000km strike radius, extended further by the carriage of 1,000 to 2,000km range land-attack cruise missiles. Should this estimate hold, then the PLA would have an airborne platform with which to credibly threaten the U.S. military buildup on Guam—soon to be a double threat considering that similar LACMs will be carried by the PLA Navy’s new Type 093 nuclear attack submarines. This gathering PLA potential for coordinated air and sea launched land attack cruise missile strikes should also concern Japan, India, Australia and Taiwan. Like the United States, they are all ill-equipped to defend against new PLA LACMs.

But perhaps of greater significance, the H-6 revival should remove any doubt that the PLA is committed to building a modern long-range airborne strike capability. The revived H-6 may only represent a "stop gap," an obsolete platform needed badly enough to fill current requirements, while a much more advanced bomber is being developed. China’s aversion to military transparency, however, means that from available open sources only informed speculation is possible about China’s future bomber plans. Yet, the few data points made available at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow should at least warrant concern that China is following the American example of considering advanced manned and unmanned bombers. A more unsettling possibility also worth considering is that China may not be too far behind the U.S. pursuit of this ambition.


[1] Lt. Col. Anatoliy Artemyev, "Tupolev Tu-16 Badger, Maid of All Work," International Air Power Review, Summer 2003, p. 161.

[2] Kenneth W. Allen, Glenn Krumel and Jonathan D. Pollack, China’s Air Force Enters The 21st Century, Washington, D.C: RAND, Project Air Force, 1995, 166.

[3] Douglas Barrie, "Cultural Revolution," Flight International, October 8, 1997, p. 35.

[4] "China close to fielding land attack missiles," Flight International, March 28, 2000, http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2000/03/28/63687/china-close-to-fielding-land-attack-missiles.html

[5] Yefim Gordon and Vladimir Rigmant, Tupolev Tu-16 Badger, Versatile Long-Range Soviet Bomber, Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2004, p. 50.

[6] Douglas Barrie and Robert Wall, "Chinese Cruise Missile Portfolio Expands," Aviation Week and Space Technology, September 19, 2006, p. 43.

[7] Bai Xiao-yan, "An Intrepid Defense Weapon in the Blue Sky," newspaper unknown, Chinese Internet source.

[8] Hui Tong, "H-6K Badger," Chinese Military Aviation Web Page, http://cnair.top81.cn/q-5_jh-7_h-6.htm; Douglas Barrie, "Fiercer Badger Spotted," Aviation Week and Space Technology, January 22, 2007, p. 26.

[9] Dr. Carlo Kopp estimates that assuming extra fuel in the bomb bay and carriage of cruise missiles, a potential D-30KP powered H-6K could achieve a radius of 3,700km; communication with author, January 29, 2007. For Dr. Kopp’s assessment of the H-6 family see, "XAC (Xian) H-6 Badger," The Airpower Australia Website, http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-Badger.html

[10] This is in addition to the January 2007 estimate of 880 short range ballistic missiles, see, "Chen highlights threat of missiles in interview with CNN," Taipei Times, January 29, 2007, p. 3, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2007/01/29/2003346795

[11] Robert Hewson, "Chinese air-launched cruise missile emerges from shadows," Jane’s Defence Weekly, January 31, 2007.

[12] Bai, op-cit, also noted in Hui Tong, op-cit.

[13] Robert Hewson, "China releases details on PGMs," Jane’s Defence Review, December 20, 2006.

[14] See author, "China’s Direct Ascent ASAT," International Assessment and Strategy Center, January 20, 2007.

[15] Howard Gethin, "Moscow targets air force for cuts," Flight International, October 19, 2004, http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2004/10/19/188876/moscow-targets-air-force-for-cuts.html

[16] "Sukhoi T-60S Project, Joint Continental Bomber," Venik’s Aviation Web Page, http://www.aeronautics.ru/t60s01.htm

[17] Wu Xincheng, "China Develops New Aviation Material," Kanwa News Xian, December 1, 2006.

[18] Bill Gertz, "China bought bomber secrets," The Washington Times, November 23, 2006.

[19] "Pentagon Sets Plan for New Bomber, Terminates J-UCAS Program," Inside the Air Force, January 13, 2006, p. 1.

[20] For background on the Barracuda see, Air Attack Web Page, http://www.air-attack.com/page/75/Barracuda.html

**Updated March 14, 2007

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