Chinese Strategic Air Power: Present and future

▲The H6K of the People's Liberation Army Air Force of China flying over the Pacific


COMMENTARYIgnacio Cristóbal Urbicain[Spanish version]

Only three countries in the world have strategic or long-range bombers (USA, Russia and China). The mission of this type of weapons is to project force over very long distances, normally within enemy airspace, in order to destroy, using its important armament load, strategic objectives, such as industry, infrastructure and logistics. It is also an important deterrent weapon.

In the case of China, its strategic aviation has the mission, required by the defense of its national interests, of projecting a threat at very long distances in order to avoid the approach and entry of the US Navy battle groups (aircraft carriers and cruise ships) into the South China Sea.

For this purpose, China has the Xian H-6. This aircraft is a derivation of the Russian Tupolev Tu-16 developed 60 years ago. In 2007 the Chinese modernized their H-6 by changing the old engines in order to reach a greater range (3,500 km). They chose Russian engines, although some sources say that a new Chinese engine (WS-18) is being developed. Likewise, a general electronic and air-ground radar modernization was carried out. Their ability to search for targets is unknown. The bomb bay was downsized to put inside another fuel tank; it was modified as well to house the 2,200 km range CJ-10th cruise missiles. In this way the H-6K was created, much more modern than the previous version, which maintains the possibility of carrying nuclear weapons, as well as the anti-ship supersonic missiles YJ-12.

A squad of 15 of these planes (this is the number of aircrafts that Jane's Defense thinks are in service) can shoot around a hundred missiles, creating an important problem for a naval group with bad intentions. We must notice that in recent weeks the H-6K have been seen for the first time with bombs on the external supports of the wings.

In December 2016 Chinese Ministry of Defense sources confirmed the rumors about the development of a new long-range bomber. This new project is likely to be a stealth aircraft (very low detectability to radar), with a long range ("second line of islands" –from central Japan to east of Indonesia, crossing over the island of Guam, USA-), as well as being able to load large amount of conventional weaponry in an internal weapons bay. The bomber will improve the capacity of the Chinese air force to circumvent enemy radars.

At the moment its name is H-X, although Jane's Defense already calls it H-20. Apparently the bomber will not be able to carry nuclear weapons, since China has a nuclear policy of "not attacking first", which means that it will not be the one who initiates a conflict with nuclear weapons. For all these reasons, China has a nuclear arsenal that follows the idea that the country would survive a first attack and will be able to strike back.

The task of the new bomber will be to keep any American carrier force, with its very well defended battle group, out of China's areas of interest. These aircraft, armed with long-range air-surface missiles, will be one of the three legs of Chinese deterrence. The other two are the attack submarines and the ballistic missiles.

Probably its design, commissioned to Xian Aircraft Corporation, is similar to the American B-2 Stealth Bomber, following the Chinese tradition of practically copying western models (the J-20 fighter is similar to the American F-22). Its first flight could take place in 2025. A different question is when it will be operative; probably it is something very far in time, considering the delays for the first flight of the J-20 and its full operation. Hence the modernization of the H-6 commented at the beginning of the article.

The fighters are very complex weapons systems and it is not enough for them to fly. They must do so with the characteristics for which they were designed. In this case China historically has a great dependence on Russian engines. China's engines have not worked as expected. Not to mention the electronics, which it is a field the US still wins by far.

*Professor, School of Economics and Business, University of Navarra