Satellite photos taken in early September show that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has received upgraded Xian H-6J bombers that are designed to carry additional anti-ship cruise missiles.
The images, captured on 7 September, show that the first four H-6Js, which are believed to be the naval variant of the upgraded H-6K flown by the air force, were on the ground at the PLANAF air base at Guiping-Mengshu in Guangxi, The Diplomat reports.
“The aircraft at Guiping-Mengshu are assessed to be a variant of the H-6K, which has been in service with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) since about 2011,” IHS Jane’s reported Thursday, without providing specifics on the H-6 variant.
Already reported last week as a possibility, seems now to be confirmed: the first four H-6J naval bombers were spotted on the ramp at Guiping-Menshu on 9/7/18. That would fit to the 8th Naval Air Division, 23rd Regiment within the Southern Theater Command. pic.twitter.com/qD5cPevhtr
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) October 3, 2018
The Diplomat notes further:
The H-6Js are presumably replacing H-6G maritime striker bombers, which first entered service with the PLANAF in the early 1990s. The PLA South Sea Fleet currently operates an H-6G regiment consisting of approximately 14-18 aircraft. In comparison to the older variant, the H-6J is thought to be able to carry about three times the number of anti-ship missiles, and at 3,500 kilometers boasts an increased combat radius of around 50 percent.
With the presumed extended combat range, the new PLANAF bombers, likely part of the 23rd Regiment, 8th Naval Aviation Division assigned to the PLA Southern Theater Command, would be capable of conducting sorties and patrols over nearly the entirety of the South China Sea with two mid-air refuels. (This data is derived from publicly available information on the H-6K.)
As for the anti-ship missiles, the Missile Defense Advocacy Group notes they are YJ-12 ASCMs with a range of 400 km (+/- 250 miles), depending on the altitude at which they are launched, and capable of reaching speeds of Mach 3. The missiles are fitted with a 200 kg (~ 400 lb) high explosive warhead.
The missile is said to be capable of in-flight evasive maneuvering to avoid anti-missile defenses before striking targets and is thought to be one of China’s most capable anti-ship weapons.
Upgrades to the H-6J variant include new, lighter airframes, new fuel-efficient D-30-KP2 turbofan engines, better avionics, and full glass cockpit for better visibility. In addition, the new versions have been fitted with long-range surface search radar coupled with an electro-optical targeting pod for acquiring targets. It should be noted that the H-6J is designed primarily for anti-ship operations. The bombers are capable of carrying up to seven YJ-12 missiles.
Analysis: Satellite imagery captured just the four H-6J variants on the airfield in Guangxi but it is a safe bet to assume that China is upgrading additional H-6s to the “J” variant to a full regiment (~20 planes).
As China’s naval aviation capabilities advance, objectives are changing as well. No longer just a defense force, the upgraded H-6J’s indicate that Beijing wants its naval bomber force to project power as well. These new designs, with their added payload capability, are designed to do just that.
These jets are not stealthy, however, which makes them more easily targetable than U.S. bombers. That said, they may not have to be if they fly within established air defense zones when launching their payloads at allied ships.
And if China does indeed upgrade a regiment of these bombers, it will give Beijing a potent power projection platform that dramatically increases risks for the U.S. Navy and other allied ships operating in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea.
To that end, China has dramatically stepped up combat patrols in the East China Sea and South China Sea using its H-6 bomber fleet (numbering about 40 aircraft) in recent years. The H-6J’s indicate that those patrols are likely to increase.