Is This China’s DF-21D Air Launched Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Toting Bomber?

Pictures have surfaced from China’s internet supposedly showing a new derivative of the People’s Liberation Air Force’s Xian H-6 bomber. This incarnation of the H-6, dubbed the H-6N, is designed to carry one weapon in particular—the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. 

The base H-6 is itself a derivative of the Tu-16 Badger, a Soviet designed aircraft from the dawn of jet age that took its first flight 65 years ago. China started building the Tu-16 under license as the H-6 in 1959. Since then the country has evolved the H-6 design somewhat radically, using new building materials and techniques, advanced avionics and updated turbofan engines to persistently modernize what is a relatively ancient design. 

China has also adapted the H-6 for a huge variety of roles, including reconnaissance, electronic warfare, aerial refueling, and a wide array of testbed duties, in addition to its role as a bomber and cruise missile carrier. Now the H-6N, the latest variant of the most modern H-6 version, the H-6K bomber, will supposedly take on one of the most exotic roles of all—hauling anti-ship ballistic missiles to launching points far from Chinese shores. 

China’s DF-21D remains a somewhat shadowy weapon when it comes to its true abilities. Nevertheless it is now widely regarded as a game-changing anti-access/area-denial weapon system. The DF-21D is a conventionally armed, ground-launched medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), with a range thought to be around 800 to 900 miles. How it differs from standard MRBMs is that it can maneuver dynamically during reentry and has the ability to target large vessels during the terminal phase of its flight. 

In essence, it is a carrier killer that engages at hypersonic speeds and steep angles of descent, making most traditional defensive weaponry useless against it. Even advanced anti-ballistic missile capabilities would be hard pressed to intercept a DF-21D depending on its stage of flight. 

Road mobile DF-21Ds being paraded through Tiananmen Square., AP

The DF-21D seems like an amazing weapon system—one that could help keep US carrier strike groups far enough from Chinese shores to make their fighter aircraft and cruise useless. But the system is only as good as the targeting information provided to it. The DF-21D’s ability to track and engage its target is limited to its terminal attack phase via the use of radar and possibly infrared sensors installed aboard its reentry vehicle. Initial targeting and mid-course updates are supplied by external sources and data-linked to the launching platform just before flight and possibly to the missile during its midcourse phase of flight. 

Back in 2010, when the DF-21D supposedly became operational, China’s ability to target vessels far out to sea in the great watery expanses of the Pacific was limited. I wrote about this stark reality in 2011. Today the country’s surveillance capabilities in space, on the ground, in the air, at sea, and under the sea have improved substantially. Any one or a combination of these sensors, which includes everything from ground based over-the-horizon radar, to surveillance satellites, to high altitude and long endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft, can provide the targeting data that can get the DF-21D in the right area for executing its deadly terminal attack on a ship.  

With maturing and diversified sensor and hardened long-range communications networks beginning to coalesce, China may be more limited by the DF-21D’s range than by the ability to target ships far from Chinese shores. The Chinese military seems to be attacking this issue in two key ways beyond the fielding of more capable nuclear fast attack submarines. 

First is the supposed development of an anti-ship variant of the DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM). The standard land attack DF-26 missile is nicknamed the “Guam Killer’ because it would be used to barrage the American island stronghold and other US bases in the region during a conflict. It sports a range of roughly 2,000 to 2,500 miles. So an anti-ship variant of the DF-26 would likely have over double the range of the DF-21D.

It still isn’t clear what the operational status is of the anti-ship variant of the DF-26, but it is clearly an ongoing program for the Chinese military. Seeing that the DF-26 anti-ship missile concept would not be feasible without robust long-range naval targeting capabilities, its very existence is an indication that China has progressed significantly in this area over the last seven years or so. 

The other way China can extend its anti-ship ballistic missile capability is to take the DF-21D and deliver it to launch points far out to sea via aircraft. Although having heavy aircraft launch ballistic missiles is not common, it is not unprecedented. The idea was toyed with during the Cold War and today C-17s drop ballistic missiles as targets for anti-ballistic missile tests. Still, there are no operational combat systems that do this, but then again the job of creating a giant anti-access bubble around one’s country and attacking ships with ballistic missiles is somewhat different than using the technique to launch traditional nuclear-tipped ballistic weapons. 

This is supposedly the job of China’s newest derivative of the H-6, the H-6N—to haul an air-launched version of the DF-21D out towards the existing edges of China’s anti-access bubble and put enemy ships at risk nearly a thousand more miles out from that point. The H-6N also clearly features an aerial refueling probe, which can extend its range dramatically when paired with China’s IL-76/78 tankers or even older HY-6 tankers.  

The H-6N will carry the DF-21D ventrally., Chinese Internet

The ground-launched DF-21D weights roughly 32,000lbs. It isn’t clear if the H-6N will be able to lug that much weight on a single hardpoint, but it is possible, if not probable, that the air-launched version of the DF-21D will be lighter due to not needing to climb the first 30,000 plus feet during its boost phase. If the H-6N can haul the same weapon configuration as the ground-launched DF-21D then it will be have substantially more range due to its higher launch altitude. 

The H-6N may also be able to launch other rocket systems, which could put small satellites in orbit or even carry anti-satellite payloads into low earth orbit. China has had a high interest in this capability as of late and utilizing the H-6N for the lower-end of the air-launch rocket concept would make a lot of sense. 

HY-6 is a aerial refueling variant of the H-6 bomber. , Li Pang/Wikicommons

It is likely that the H-6N will also be able to carry anti-ship cruise missiles as it appears to have pylons to do so. It looks to also carry a large radar in its nose, which would allow for organic targeting for its cruise missiles during closer-range anti-ship engagements. 

Regardless of if the aircraft photographed does indeed end up toting around an air-launched version of the DF-21D or not, the concept is in development, and it definitely represents an unprecedented conventional anti-ship threat, especially to American carrier and amphibious strike groups. If an anti-ship variant of the DF-26 can reach out at least 2,000 miles, and the air-launched DF-21D can reach out roughly another 1,000 miles farther from that threat horizon, in total the two systems combined could provide a continuous anti-ship ballistic missile umbrella reaching out over 3,000 miles from Chinese shores.

Above all else the H-6N is an indication of China’s maturing anti-access/area-denial umbrella and all the infrastructure that goes along with. It will also make China’s anti-ship ballistic missile arsenal more survivable, as with the H-6N in inventory, DF-21D missiles can be conveyed from anywhere in the country out over the ocean for launch. 

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