The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) took delivery of 15 of China’s new Xian H-6K strategic bombers, Jane’s Defence Weekly reported back in June. This report has now seemingly been confirmed by Chinese state-run media outlets, which noted that “Jane’s Defence was the first media outlet to confirm that the H-6K had formally entered active service.”
The H-6K nuclear-capable bomber is an upgraded version of the H-6 bomber, which is a locally built version of the Russian Tupolev Tu-16 Badger that Moscow first deployed during the 1950s. The PLAAF first received a TU-16 bomber from the Soviet Union in 1958 and has been modifying it ever since.
According to China’s media, the H-6K “is a medium-sized craft designed for long-range attacks, stand-off attacks and large-area air patrol. Unlike its predecessor, the H-6K can carry cruise missiles under its wings. The H-6K also maneuvers more deftly than the H-6 and requires a smaller crew to operate.”
One of the biggest improvements made to the H-6K is its engine. The new strategic bomber reportedly uses a reverse engineered Russian NPO Saturn D-30KP turbofan engine, which boosts its combat range to 3,500 km. It also packs both the YJ-12 Eagle Strike supersonic anti-ship missile, which has a range of around 400 km, as well as up to six nuclear-capable Changjian-10K (CJ-10k) air-launched cruise missiles, which reportedly each have a range of 1,500-2,000 km.
The CJ-10K is the air variant of the CJ-10 ground attack cruise missile that was supposedly developed from the DH-10 (DongHai-10). The DH-10 itself was reportedly based on the Russian Kh-55 missile. First unveiled at a military parade in 2009, Project 2049 Institute reported earlier this year that, “after more than two decades of development and testing, the DH-10 has entered production and deployment at break-neck speeds.”
Thus, with the bomber's strategic combat range of 3,500 km, the CJ-10 extends its strike range to as much as 5,000 km. Chinese media noted that at this combat range, the H-6K can effectively “reach Okinawa, Guam and even Hawaii from China’s mainland.”
This latter figure appears to be an exaggeration, although it has been reported by other sources. Most recently, Want China Times reports that Kanwa Defense Review, a Canadian-based Asia defense publication, estimated that a H-6K equipped with CJ-10K missiles could reach Hawaii, although it puts the bomber’s combat range with CJ-10K missiles at between 5,000-9,000 km.
In any case, the H-6K is only a stopgap measure for the PLAAF’s bomber capabilities, although China’s future intentions remain somewhat murky. There has been widespread speculation that Beijing was seeking to purchase the Russian-designed Tu-22M and is now reportedly seeking the Russian-built Sukhoi Su-34 fighter bombers, or perhaps wants to produce a copy under the name J-17. Other reports suggest that China is “developing a stealthier variant of the JH-7 fighter-bomber.”
Finally, some posit that China is developing a stealth bomber based on the four-engine flying wing design that the U.S. B-2 Spirit utilizes. Flight Global suggests that the stealth bomber could have a Shenyang Liming WS-10 turbofan engine and carry CJ-10K missiles.
Over at Foreign Policy, John Reed recently posted models of what many speculate will be China’s next stealth bomber.