China has been upgrading its H-6 bombers and producing H-6K bombers in an effort to improve its aerial nuclear strategic deterrence. The subsonic speed of the H-6 and non-stealthy sorties prevented it from breaking through the air-defense networks of Russia, the United States and Japan. Fitted with D-30-P2 engines of greater thrust power, the H-6K has a greatly increased range and combat payload. The two engines, each with a thrust power of 12,000 kilograms, may enhance the H-6K's ammunition capacity to around 12 tons, enabling it to carry large long-range cruise missiles.
Before 2006, China had no effective long-range air-launched cruise missiles. Judging from their exterior structure, the range of the YJ-63 cruise missiles it has fitted on the H-6H is no more than 200 kilometers. The deployment of this cruise missile in its 10th Bomber Division appears to be aimed at reinforcing strike capability on tactical targets in Taiwan.
The H-6K has a reinforced fuselage structure and uses more composite materials, and the hardpoints fitted on it are also newly designed. Armed with long-range cruise missiles, even though it is still a subsonic bomber, the H-6K now has the operational capability to project nuclear deterrence. The fire control software of the H-6K will also undergo necessary modifications.
A careful analysis of the configuration of the six cruise missiles loaded on the H-6K bomber, a picture of which appeared recently on Chinese Web sites, indicates China may have imitated the Russian KH-55A air-launched cruise missiles. In the mid-1990s, China acquired six such missiles from Ukraine through smuggling -- a feat confirmed by Ukrainian authorities.
Although the image of the H-6K is blurred, it can be seen that the air-intake channel is close to the stabilizing fin at the tail, very similar to the pneumatic structure of the KH-55A. This indicates that the H-6K bomber is powered by turbofan engines. This photo also indicates that China very likely has started to produce a Chinese version of the KH-55.
The KH-55 and KH-55SM can be either conventional or nuclear cruise missiles. It is not likely that the development of such long-range aggressive weapons was intended for conventional offensive operations. Such missiles can be armed with a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead. Thus the Chinese version of the KH-55 could be fitted with both conventional and nuclear warheads. The KH-55 has a length of 8.09 meters and a diameter of 0.514 meters -- 0.77 meters for the KH-55SM. The KH-55 has a wingspan of 3.1 meters, a weight of 1,700 kilograms and a flying speed of Mach 0.48-0.77. The total weight of the 6 KH-55 missiles is 10.2 tons. These figures give some idea as to why China is upgrading its H-6H to the H-6K.
The acquisition of the H-6K and new generation long-range cruise missile is an epoch-making event for the PLA air force. When used for conventional precision offensive operations, the Chinese KH-55 fired from Chinese air space will put the entire Korean peninsula within strike range, and also much of Japan, including the whole of Okinawa, parts of Honshu Island and all of Kyushu and Shikoku.
If the Chinese KH-55 has the 2,500-kilometer strike range of the original Russian KH-55, H-6K bombers taking off from an airport in northeast China could directly launch attacks within China's own air space upon almost all targets in Tokyo, Hokkaido and Honshu. Moreover, the H-6K bombers deployed in the 8th Bomber Division under the southern Guangzhou Military Region could be forward-deployed and launch aerial attacks upon Guam.
From the official Chinese news release after the successful flight tests of the H-6K, it can be clearly sensed the Chinese military has high expectations for this bomber. It is not just an upgraded variant of the H-6 or intended only for tactical purposes. The news release described its test flight as an event that "20,000 Xian Aircraft Company staff have been longing for, for 13 long years." Guests invited to observe the maiden flight of the bomber included top leaders from the Central Military Commission and the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.
It appears that the entry into service of the H-6K has given the Chinese air force genuine operational capability to launch nuclear attacks upon adversary targets.