The PLAAF and PLAN continue to rely on the 50-year old H-6, a Chinese copy of the Russian Tu-16 ‘Badger’ medium bomber, for the long-range strike role. The latest variant of the H-6 is capable of carrying precision-guided, stand-off weapons. Various concepts of new-generation bombers have been speculated but no design has been revealed so far.

Background

The PLAAF and PLAN have been operating the Tu-16/H-6 bomber since the 1960s, serving in a wide range of roles from nuclear and tactical bomber, to naval missile bomber, tanker, reconnaissance/electronic warfare, engine testbed, and cruise missile platform. Today, China is the only country in the world that still deploys the Tu-16/H-6 in operational service.

China obtained the Tu-16 blueprint from the Soviet Union in 1959 and the Chinese-assembled Tu-16 using Soviet-supplied kits first flew in the same year. However, the indigenised version designated H-6A using Chinese-made engines and parts did not fly until 1968 due to the Sino-Soviet split. The H-6A bomber entered service in 1969 and has been used for both strategic and tactical roles. The aircraft was also exported to Iraq and Egypt but it is no longer operational in these countries. The production of the H-6 continued at low rate throughout the 1980s and 90s, with new variants being introduced after 2000.

Like the Tu-16, the H-6 was originally designed to carry high-drag, free-fall general-purpose bombs inside its internal weapon bay to perform WWII-style level bombing missions. With its obsolete aerodynamic design and lacklustre performance, the H-6 would have a very low survivability when facing modern air defence weapons. Later variants of the H-6, however, are equipped with precision-guided, stand-off weapon (SOW), which can be launched tens or even hundreds of kilometres away and find its target with the assistance of various guidance systems, while the carrier aircraft can leave the theatre shortly after the launch to avoid enemy air defence firepower.

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H-6 ‘Badger’ Strategic Bomber

In June 1963, the Xi’an Aircraft Factory was ordered to convert one of the first two Tu-16 bombers assembled using Soviet-supplied kits into a nuclear weapon carrier under a highly secret programme codenamed “21-511”. The bomber (PLAAF serial 50671) was fitted with an air-conditioned weapon bay and special bomb mountings to carry a nuclear bomb. The conversation was completed in 1964. On 14 May 1965, this bomber flown by PLAAF officer Li Yuanyi and his crew drooped a 25kT yield enhanced atomic bomb with thermal nuclear material (lithium 6) at Lop Nor nuclear test site. On 17 June 1967, the same bomber flown by Xu Kejiang dropped China’s first thermal nuclear bomb with a yield of 3,000kT.

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H-6A/AII ‘Badger’ Strategic/Tactical Bomber

The H-6A was based on the basic variant H-6/Tu-16, but with features borrowed from Tu-16A, which served as a strategic bomber in the Soviet Air Force. The H-6A was configured for both strategic nuclear strikes and conventional tactical missions. The batch production began in 1971 and reached its peak rate of 30 examples per year in the late 1970s. By 1986, a total of 140 examples had been delivered to the PLAAF.

The H-6AII is the improved variant of the H-6A fitted with a computerised bombing/navigation system and IFF/RWR. The aircraft development began in 1970 and the first flight took place in 1975. The design certificate was issued in 1981. From the 12th batch of the H-6A in 1982, the aircraft was built in the H-6AII standard. Existing H-6A bombers in PLA service were also upgraded to the H-6AII standard.

This variant of the bomber carried seven 23 mm cannons: a single-barrel Type 23-2 cannon mounted on the starboard side of the glass-in nose compartment with 200 rounds; and three twin-barrel Type 23-2H cannons mounted in defensive turrets located on the back and belly of the fuselage and tail. The internal fuselage weapon bay can carry up to 9,000 kg payloads including 250 kg to 3,000 kg general-purpose bombs or a single nuclear bomb.

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H-6D ‘Badger’ Anti-Ship Missile Bomber

The H-6D was the first variant deployed by the PLA Navy. The aircraft first flew in 1981 and was certified for design finalisation in 1985, with nine examples delivered in the mid-1980s, five to the PLAN and four sold to the Jordanian Air Force. An additional nine examples were delivered to the PLA Navy in 1990.

Improvements and modifications on the H-6D include external under-wing pylons for carrying the YJ-6 anti-ship cruise missile, removal of the front cannon, and the addition of fire-control system, Doppler navigation radar and automated inertial navigation system (INS), Type 245 target acquisition/illumination radar in the under-chin radome, as well as extended range.

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H-6E/F ‘Badger’ Tactical Bomber

Following China’s unsuccessful attempt to acquire the Russian Tu-22M ‘Backfire’ bomber in the early 1990s, the PLAAF was forced to continue upgrading the existing H-6 design to fulfil its long-range strike capability requirements. The H-6 production line at the Xi’an Aircraft Company was reopened to build the new improved H-6E and H-6F variants. These new bombers replaced the older H-6A to perform tactical strike missions.

The difference between the E and F variants is minor. The most noticeable feature is the removal of the nose cannon. Both variants are believed to be fitted with an automated navigation system which uses three navigation methods: inertial, GPS, and Doppler navigation radar. The original manually operated optical bombing sight was also replaced by an automatic fire-control system. These improvements enable the bomber to perform level-bombing missions in all-weather, day/night conditions.

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H-6G ‘Badger’ Anti-Ship Missile Bomber

Developed in the late 1990s, the H-6G is the successor to the H-6D anti-ship missile bomber. The G variant features four under-wing pylons to carry the YJ-83K anti-ship missile, with upgraded avionics.

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H-6H ‘Badger’ Missile Bomber

The H-6H was developed in the late 1990s to meet the PLAAF demand for a long-range strike capability in the early 21st century. Development of the H-6H began in January 1995 and the aircraft first flew in December 1998.

The H-6H carries two KD-63 (KongDi-63) air-to-surface missiles under its wings. The missile appears to be developed from the YJ-6 air-launched anti-ship missile, but with an X-shape tail. Its turbojet may be based on that of the HY-4 land-based anti-ship cruise missile. The KD-63 reportedly uses inertial/GPS mid-course with a TV terminal guidance seeker, carrying a 500kg warhead to a 150~200km range at a speed of Mach 0.9.

The H-6H has all of the cannon turrets removed. The bomber features an enlarged under-chin radome similar to that of the H-6D to accommodate the fire-control radar. It also has a distinctive black-colour radome located under the rear fuselage for command link with the missiles in flight.

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H-6M ‘Badger’ Missile Bomber

The H-6M, which entered the PLAAF service in 2007, is believed to have been converted from the older H-6E/F airframes. The M variant can carry up to four KD-63 air-to-surface missiles, or the KD-20 long-range land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) under its wings.

H-6M with KD-20

H-6M with KD-20

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H-6K ‘Badger’ Missile Bomber

The H-6K is the latest variant of the H-6 family, with some 40 examples delivered to the PLAAF since 2007. Having received extensive system and structural upgrade for improved performance, the H-6K is primarily used as a platform for delivering precision-guided weapons from a ‘stand-off’ distance outside the range of enemy air defence. The most significant improvement on the aircraft is the replacement of the original WP-8 turbojet engines with two Russian Aviadvigatel D-30KP-2 turbofan engines each rated at 103kN (10,503kg, 23,150 lbs), giving the aircraft significantly improved performance and payload capability. The H-6K also features improved avionics including a ‘glass’ cockpit with colour MFDs and a sophisticated self-defence EW/ECM suite. The aircraft has six external under-wing payload hard points, which are used to carry various air-to-surface weapons such as the KD-20 and KD-63.

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The H-6K retained the basic aerodynamic layout of the H-6/Tu-16 ‘Badger’, but features a number of modifications, including (1) redesigned forward fuselage with a solid nose and larger cockpit window replacing the original glass-in nose; (2) Enlarged air intakes to support the DK-30 turbofan engines; (3) Under-chin electro-optical turret containing FLIR and TV sensors; (4) New EW/ELINT and communication antennas on the forward fuselage; (5) A spherical radome located under the fuselage behind the bomb bay doors for data link with the KD-20 cruise missile; (6) All-aspect radar warning receivers and missile approach warning system on the vertical tail fin; (7) Six under-wing payload hard points for carrying missiles; (8) Removal of the tail gun turret for space to accommodate additional avionics; (9) EW/ECM suite including flare/chaff dispensers.

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