China’s People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has continued to modernise and develop new uses for its large fleet of H-6 strategic bombers. With a fleet of approximately 120 aircraft, the uses of which are shrinking due to both their increasing age and advances in ballistic missile technology which have reduced the need for bombers to act as delivery vehicles, the military has found a number of new roles for the long range heavy platform. The recent induction of the H-6G, an electronic warfare platform based on the strategic bomber's chassis, is but one example. Another new variant of the H-6 has been the H-6K, which integrates several state of the art systems and has been built to fulfil a combat role.
While the H-6K uses the same airframe as the original H-6 platform first inducted in the early 1960s, the modern platforms significantly surpass the combat capabilities of their predecessors. The new platforms use Russian D-30KP turbofan engines with 103 kN thrust to replace the less capable Xian WP8. The bomber also has larger air intakes, a new re designed flight deck with reduced transparencies and new larger dielectric nose radome. The platform also makes use of stealth coating which gives it limited radar evading capabilities. This could well be a test of stealth technologies application on a large strategic bomber as the country continues to develop its H-20 stealth bomber. The H-6K is set to be equipped with new avionics, fly-by-wire systems and an air refueling probe in future. It could well see service operating near Guam, Hawaii and other U.S. military facilities as tensions between the two powers continue to rise.
Much like the H-6H and H-6M variants before it, the H-6K can carry cruise missiles for anti ship and air to ground missions. While less capable than the cruise missiles carrier by Russia's Tu-160 or the United States' B-1B, they are still invaluable assets for the PLA's otherwise somewhat limited power projection capabilities. Developed based on technologies reverse engineered from both the U.S. Tomahawk and the Soviet Kh-55, acquired from Pakistan and Ukraine respectively, the H-6 bomber's CJ-20 cruise missiles allow them to strike targets over 2000km away. By striking well beyond the range of U.S. anti aircraft missiles, both those based on the ground and carried by fighters, Chinese bombers can significantly enhance their survivability. Developed especially for the H-6, the CJ-20 carries a formidable 500kg payload and allows the PLA to strike strategic targets across the Pacific - including potentially the U.S. mainland itself from a safe distance over the ocean.
For a ship hunting role the H-6K can be equipped with the 400km range YJ-12 missiles, which is still well beyond the range of ship based anti aircraft systems and air to air missiles used by U.S. carrier based aircraft. This again serves minimise the vulnerability of the otherwise somewhat cumbersome bomber to missile strikes, and is an approach the United States Air Force has also taken to increase the survivability of its B-52 heavy bombers. The bomber's formidable range meanwhile would allow platforms to support PLA Naval operations far from shore and attack enemy naval targets as far as Guam and Hawaii - the latter housing the strategically critical U.S. Pacific Command. The large payloads the H-6 can carry, far eclipsing those of strike fighters such as the JH-7, makes even a single bomber armed with cruise missiles a potent threat to a U.S. naval task force.
Ultimately the H-6K represents the latest in a long line of major modernisations of the original H-6 which have kept the platform viable against modern near peer adversaries for over half a century. While the induction of the H-20 is set to augment China's strategic bomber capabilities, and potentially lead to more H-6 platforms being modified for alternative roles such as electronic warfare and anti ship roles, the older bombers are likely to continue to see service as combat platforms in the People's Liberation Army for many decades to come.