- An amateur video of what appears to be a Chinese H-6N bomber carrying a previously-unseen mystery missile emerged over the weekend.
- The H-6N is among the most advanced Chinese bombers in the H-6 family and is, according to the Pentagon, “optimised for long-range strikes.”
- A missile analyst told Insider that the mystery missile appeared to be an air-launched anti-ship ballistic missile. Another possibility that has been put forward by other observers is that the missile is some type of hypersonic weapon.
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An amateur video emerged over the weekend of what appears to be a Chinese H-6N carrying a previously-unseen mystery missile.
In the very short video, which was first reported by The War Zone, a previously-unseen missile can be seen slung beneath the grey bomber as it prepares to land at a nearby airfield. The video appears to mark the first time an armed H-6N has been seen. It offers new insight into the bomber’s payload.
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Roderick Lee, the Director of Research at the Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base,wrote on Twitter that the video appears to have been taken outside Neixiang Airfield in Henan province. He wrote recently in The Diplomat that the base might house China’s H-6Ns, which are among its most advanced H-6 bombers.
China has been flying Xi’an H-6 bombers since the late 1960s, but as China works to modernise its force, it has taken major steps to improve the aircraft that began as a Chinese licence-built version of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 Badger bomber.
The H-6K variant entered service in 2009. The Pentagon assesses that the H-6K “can carry six [land-attack cruise missiles], giving the PLA a long-range standoff precision strike capability that can range Guam from home airfields in mainland China.” The H-6N, a derivative of the H-6K, builds on that capability.
In a 2018 report on China’s growing military might, the Pentagon said that the Chinese military was upgrading its aircraft to carry new air-launched ballistic missiles.
Then, at a military parade the following year, China unveiled the improved H-6N variant.
In its latest China military power report, the Pentagon characterises the H-6N as “a derivative of the H-6K optimised for long-range strikes,” explaining that instead of a traditional bomb bay, the plane features a modified fuselage designed to allow the bomber to carry an air-launched ballistic missile externally.
There has been a lot of speculation that China might arm its H-6Ns with anti-ship ballistic missiles, perhaps some air-launched variant of the land-based DF-21D ASBM, also known as a “carrier-killer” missile.
Xu Tianran, an Open Nuclear Network analyst, told Insider he thinks the missile in the video is an air-launched anti-ship ballistic missile.
“It is not surprising that after land-based ASBMs, [the] Chinese military wants to have aerial platforms for more flexibility and diversity,” Xu explained, pointing to China’s efforts to develop anti-access/area-denial weapons aimed at deterring the US Navy, specifically it’s 11-carrier fleet.
Another possibility that has been put forward since the video of the H-6N came out is that the missile is some sort of hypersonic weapon. The development of these weapons, for which there is currently no adequate defence, is a key area of competition between the US and China.
The War Zone noted that the missile in the video looks similar to the ground-launched DF-17 hypersonic weapon China unveiled at the same military parade where it first showed off its new H-6N bomber. The DF-17, a surface-to-surface missile, relies on a ballistic missile to accelerate a DF-ZF hypersonic boost-glide vehicle to speeds over Mach 5.
The US Air Force is currently developing the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a hypersonic weapon that has been seen being carried by the B-52 Stratofortress bomber.
Given the low quality of the footage of the armed H-6N that appeared over the weekend, it is difficult to say with any certainty exactly what it was carrying, and it is unclear what stage of development the weapon may be in.
Regardless of whether the missile is an ASBM or a hypersonic weapon or something else entirely, it is clear that China is taking big steps to improve the warfighting capabilities of its bombers.
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