China accidentally reveals secret weapon
A centrefold graphic recently flourished intimate details of a Chinese bomber carrying a stark new weapon. State-controlled media has since gone into cover-up mode. But military analysts think Beijing may have been caught with its pants down.
The government produced Modern Ships magazine has splashed high-resolution computer-generated images of China's most recent addition to its strategic bomber line-up - the H-6N - over the front and feature pages.
But that's not what drew the eye of the world's defence thinkers.
The graphics showed the new bomber carrying a huge ballistic missile slung under its fuselage. And that missile looks a lot like one of a family of ballistic weapons deployed by China's People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) as aircraft carrier killers.
But there's far more to the story than the detailed conceptual images.
And this may confirm Western defence analysts' worst fears.
"If (this) is correct then this would be an impressive anti-ship standoff capability for the PLA (People's Liberation Army), that would extend the utility of the DF-21D out well beyond the first island chain," Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Malcolm Davis told Flight Global.
"That would theoretically match the ground-launched DF-26 anti-ship capable (intermediate ballistic missile), and increase the risk for US aircraft carrier battle groups … the Chinese are clearly trying to make it costlier for the US to project power into the western pacific, to the point where the US simply chooses not to intervene in a crisis."
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Defence enthusiasts noted several strange things about the latest N variant of China's Xian H-6 series of strategic bombers when it was unveiled to the public at the 70th National Day parade in October.
The state-controlled Xinhua news service simply said it was a "homemade strategic bomber capable of air refuelling and long-range strike".
But when a flight of three of the bombers flew over Beijing, military experts saw it doesn't have bomb-bay doors. Instead, it has what appears to be new heavyweight attachment points in a recess along the centre-line of its fuselage.
Also noted was its modified, extended nose-cone and an air-to-air refuelling nozzle.
Speculation as to what this all meant was rife.
Even if the images posted yesterday were for the first time showing the underside of the latest H-6N bomber, these now clearly show not only the deleted bomb bay but also the semiconformal attachment for the new ballistic anti-ship missile.— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) September 23, 2019
(Images via Huitong's CMA-Blog) pic.twitter.com/QKPq79TqlF
Most observers settled on a disturbing prospect: that these changes enabled the bomber to carry huge, nuclear-capable or hypersonic-speed ballistic missiles.
If correct, it would become only the second nation to do so.
Russia displayed an air-launched ballistic missile, the hypersonic Kinzhal, in 2017. It was slung under a cold-war era MiG-31 interceptor.
Another possibility, presented by the South China Morning Post, is that the H-6N can carry the large new supersonic semi-autonomous drones also revealed at the National Day parades.
"The semi-recessed area under the fuselage of the H-6N is designed to carry either the WZ-8 or the CJ-100," an anonymous military source reportedly told the Post.
The WZ-8 is the supersonic drone and the CJ/DF-100 is a large new missile.
In the past, Chinese media has not been hesitant to claim a pending ballistic missile capability for its bombers.
"With China developing hypersonic weapons in recent years, its attack range and speed could become even greater than a conventional cruise missile, potentially capable of taking out targets deep within hostile territories 3000 kilometres away within just a few minutes," H-6K pilot Li Peng reportedly told China Central Television (CCTV).
The appearance of the H-6N indicates this expectation is nearing reality.
The CJ/DF-100 missile is larger than the CJ-10 carried by the H-6K variant. This means it needs a bigger, stronger attachment point to an aircraft than underwing pylons.
Thus the H-6N's recessed fuselage.
In return, the CJ/DF-100 may offer a 2000km supersonic strike range, more than 500k further than the earlier subsonic CJ-10.
"Aerial refuelling could expand the H-6N's operational range by 500 kilometres over the H-6K to more than 4000 kilometres," the military source told the Post. "So, in theory, the CJ-100 could take the H-6N's strike range to about 6000 kilometres."
China has in recent years sought to negate the power of US navy aircraft carrier strike groups by building long-range, ultra-fast guided missiles.
The idea is to overwhelm the escorts and defences of the nuclear-powered behemoths long before they could deploy their strike aircraft.
The US Pentagon's 2018 China Power report revealed China had tested a Dong Feng-12 medium-range ballistic missile modified to be carried by aircraft. A more recent report warns DF-15 and DF-21 ballistic missiles (one intended to carry conventional warheads, the other nuclear) are being modified for launch by the H-6N.
These will further extend the "danger zone" US aircraft carriers must sail through before being able to deploy their own limited-range F-35 stealth fighters and missiles.
Along with an extra 500km offered by in-flight refuelling, the H-6N could force Western warships to run a 6000km gauntlet.
But the bomber still faces challenges, China's military admits. Not being stealth, it must run the gauntlet of defences between Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines before it can strike targets deep in the Pacific Ocean.
"The new bomber is still unable to break the first island chain because it is not a stealth bomber and is easier to detect by an opponent's radar systems," a People's Liberation Army air force (PLAAF) statement reads.
Progress on Beijing's next generation bomber, the stealth Xian H-20, is yet to be reported - though it is expected to enter service in 2025.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel