The H-6N missile carrier adds another long-range and very unpredictable layer to China's already formidable anti-access umbrella

by Joseph Trevithick

Last year, state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) showed off a new short-range ballistic missile specifically for the anti-ship role, known as the CM-401, at the biennial Zhuhai Airshow, as well. All told, it could turn out that the H-6N may eventually be able to use its large, semi-recessed mounting arrangement to carry a number of different air-launched ballistic weapons, and potentially future hypersonic weapons, in the coming years. 

The bomber's ability to carry over-sized payloads may ensure it remains a useful tool in the PLAAF arsenal even as newer stealthier bombers begin entering service in the future. The U.S. Air Force similarly intends to keep flying its ageing, Cold War-era B-52 bombers for decades to come for this very reason. Air-launched ballistic missiles are also becoming an increasingly popular concept around the world.

The H-6N also prominently features an aerial refuelling probe on its nose, which could further expand its flexibility and reach, especially when it comes to engaging targets at the very edges of areas China claims as its integral national territory, including in the South China Sea, and beyond. The aerial refuelling capability may also just be necessary to ensure that the aircraft can lug the weapon to the appropriate altitude and launch point.

Whatever the case, the H-6N has the potential to be another formidable addition to China's already extensive anti-access and area denial capabilities, especially in the South China Sea. Just in January 2019, the PLARF conducted drills that appeared intended to demonstrate China's ability to conduct extremely long-range anti-ship attacks on potential opponents in the South China Sea. Then between June and July, there were reports that Chinese forces conducted live-fire drills that involved firing ballistic missiles into that region, further underscoring the threat.

In addition, China's ability to detect and track naval threats, as well as potential opponents in the air, under the water, and in space, are rapidly improving, as are its command and control capabilities. When it comes to spotting ships, the Chinese can increasingly call on manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, as well as shore-based assets, including over-the-horizon radars. This provides the kind of network essential for long-range anti-ship ballistic missile strikes. 

In July, weeks after the Chinese missile exercises, there was an unconfirmed report from Taiwan's Up Media that one of the PLAAF's Xianglong, or Soar Eagle, high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) drone had shadowed the U.S. Navy's Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Antietam as it sailed through the Taiwan Strait. Soar Eagle is just one of a number of HALE unmanned aircraft that the Chinese have been developing in recent years.

With regards to the H-6N and its weapon load-outs, we may learn more during the Oct. 1 parade, especially if one of the aircraft flies over onlookers in Tiananmen Square carrying a payload of some kind. With this official debut, we will almost certainly be seeing more of these missile carriers in various settings, including training exercises, that will help illuminate more details about its exact capabilities, as well.