China has persisted with manufacturing the H-6, despite the design's age

Ever since the standoff with India over Ladakh began last year, Chinese state media have frequently played up deployment of various military systems to the region.

These have ranged from new artillery systems to tanks to helicopters, which have often been shown in exercises in “high-altitude areas”, a euphemism for the border with India.

In comparison, Chinese state media have reported more sparsely on deployment of fighter aircraft and bombers of the People's Liberation Army Air Force.

But last week, China Central Television showed footage of a bomber aircraft, the H-6K, flying over a mountain range. The CCTV report showed the H-6K aircraft flying with short-range air-to-ground cruise missiles.

South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based publication, quoted analysts as saying the deployment appeared to be a warning to India. “A Beijing-based military source said the H-6Ks were usually based in Shaanxi province but had been stationed in Kashgar in the neighbouring western region of Xinjiang on a temporary basis since last year," South China Morning Post reported.

Song Zhongping, a retired PLA artillery officer and military analyst, told South China Morning Post the H-6K was meant to target “airbases, missile launch sites, and other military posts near the borders”. Song noted, “China will not attack civilian areas, so Delhi will not be targeted by air-launched missiles even though the capital is quite close to the border.”

In September last year, Chinese state media reported the deployment of bombers and heavy transport aircraft to “high-altitude plateau” for training.

Relic That Stays Relevant

The H-6K is a derivative of the Tupolev Tu-16, a bomber designed in the Soviet Union. The Tu-16 was a subsonic two-engine bomber that first flew in 1952. It was provided to China during the mid-1950s when the two Communist nations were allies. China began manufacturing the Tu-16 under licence as the H-6; the first H-6 flew in 1959.

Even by the technology standards of the 1950s, the Tu-16 was a modest design, having far lower weight and range than contemporaries like the US B-52 and Tupolev's own Tu-95. The Tu-16 was considered to be virtually obsolete by the 1960s as it was vulnerable to ground-based air defences and enemy fighter jets. The Tu-16 was relegated from nuclear strike roles and modified to carry anti-ship missiles and carry out electronic warfare and reconnaissance roles. Russia retired the Tu-16 from service soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, China has persisted with manufacturing the H-6, despite the design's age. For decades, China used the H-6 as a carrier of nuclear bombs and anti-ship missiles and also as an aerial refuelling tanker.

The H-6K emerged in the mid-2000s. The design was distinguished from previous H-6 variants by the presence of a 'solid' nose, instead of the glass nose that used to house observers. The H-6K also had more fuel-efficient engines from Russia that extended its combat radius to over 3,000km. US analysts have considered the H-6K a threat to US facilities in the Pacific.

The 2021 report of the Pentagon on China's military modernisation states “The PLAAF employs the medium-range H-6K bomber, which can carry up to six precision-guided CJ-20 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) each, giving it the ability to engage US forces as far away as Guam.” The CJ-20 missile is estimated to have a range of around 1,500km.

In addition to cruise missiles to hit land targets, the H-6K can also carry supersonic anti-ship missiles. In 2019, a new variant of the H-6 family emerged, which was dubbed the H-6N. The H-6N was distinguished by its modified fuselage that enabled it to carry a single air-launched ballistic missile that could conceivably target warships, in particular aircraft carriers.

Writing in The Diplomat in 2020, Rick Joe, an expert on the Chinese military, estimated the PLAAF may have built well over 100 H-6K aircraft over the past decade. He wrote “… the H-6K family remain in production… distributed between H-6KG, H-6J and H-6N types. It’s not known what the final production run of H-6K family aircraft will be, but it is conceivable that the final number could approach 200 airframes, which would provide a robust fleet capable of regional standoff strike and maritime strike."

Threat To India

Given China’s disadvantage in number of large airbases near the Line of Actual Control, the H-6K could prove to be a crucial factor for the PLAAF in a conflict with India as the aircraft could threaten Indian Air Force bases with cruise missiles fired from within Chinese airspace.