As part of a large program to improve the long range strike capabilities of its vast H-6 bomber fleet, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has begun development of an air launched ballistic missile for its strategic bombers. These nuclear capable platforms have reportedly begun flight testing, and are set to significantly strengthen the air arm of the country's nuclear triad. With China one of just four world powers to field heavy strategic bombers, the country’s fleet lags behind those of the United States and Russia in its capabilities - lacking advanced supersonic platforms such as the Tu-160 or B-1B lancer. With the PLA set to induct a new stealth bomber in the near future, the H-20, with capabilities expected to exceed those of any bombers currently in service worldwide, the military has prioritised enhancing the capabilities of its older platforms which will continue to serve a number of roles alongside the H-20 upon its entry into service. This mirrors the United States Air Force’s own approach of upgrading its B-52, a platform with similar capabilities to the H-6 which also dates back to the 1950s, to accompany its upcoming B-21 Raider - while retiring all other bombers from service. The B-21 is set to serve as the U.S. equivalent to the H-20.
According to a number of U.S. government sources the PLA has conducted five flight tests of the new air launched ballistic missile, which has been dubbed ‘CH-AS-X-13’ by American intelligence. Directors of the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) have in recent years made references to China’s nuclear capable air launched missiles in their two latest worldwide threat assessments on record. Should China complete the development of the platform, it would make the PLA the only military in the world to field an air launched ballistic missile. With the PLA’s nuclear forces dwarfed by those of the United States and Russia, fielding an estimated 270 nuclear warheads as opposed to approximately 7000 each for the Cold War's two superpowers, China is far from a near peer nuclear power. This can potentially undermine Beijing’s position should tensions with Washington escalate and nuclear threats begin to be exchanged. Developing more survivable missiles, less vulnerable to being neutralised in a nuclear first strike or to being destroyed before they leave China’s airspace, is thus a potentially highly effective means of compensating for the relatively small size of its nuclear arsenal. The air launched ballistic missile's development comes as part of a greater trend regarding China’s numerous missile development programs, which also include the development of new hypersonic missiles, medium range tactical ballistic missiles and even ship hunting ballistic missiles threatening to undermine the United States’ dominant position in East Asia and throughout the Pacific.
The two most recent tests of the CH-AS-X-13 involved aerial launches from modified H-6K strategic bombers - platforms capable of aerial refuelling to extend their already considerable range. The modified ballistic missile variants of the H-6, dubbed the H6X1/H-6N by U.S. intelligence, was reportedly developed by China’s Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation, which has been responsible for the production and modernisation of all bombers in the H-6 series for sixty years. The missile itself has reportedly been designed as an intermediate range platform capable of striking targets up to 3000km away, and is a two stage solid fuel platform. The missile is speculated to be derived from China’s DF-21, but modified to make greater use of lighter composite materials to reduce its weight and thus allow it to be carried by China’s bombers. The DF-21 is an outstandingly versatile missile platform, which has been modified for a number of roles including most prolifically a long range satellite guided ship hunter, the DF-21D, which has been dubbed ‘carrier killer’ based on its role and formidable capabilities.
Whether China’s air launched ballistic missile is intended as an anti ship platform or as a conventional ballistic missile to target enemy ground targets remains to be seen, and the possibility remains that two separate platforms are being developed for both roles simultaneously for launch from the very same H-6 variant. China’s PLA has already show itself highly willing to develop its strategic bombers for long range anti ship operations, as while the United States Navy remains under a significant threat when within range of China’s land based anti ship missile installations and medium range strike fighters, equipping its long range bombers with anti ship weapons allows it to extend this range across much of the Pacific Ocean as far as Hawaii. Whether the upcoming H-20 will similarly be outfitted for a ship hunting role remains to be seen.