New Images Of Chinese Bomber Carrying Huge Mystery Missile Point To Hypersonic Capability

Newly visible details further indicate that China is developing an air-launched hypersonic weapon, one that may be air-breathing.

byJoseph Trevithick|
China photo


New images have emerged of what looks to be a Chinese H-6N missile carrier aircraft carrying an outsized missile underneath its fuselage. Though more detail is now visible, the general shape and size of the apparent missile are very similar, if not identical to the one seen in another video that appeared on social media last month. The features that we can now see further point to a hypersonic design, which could potentially be air-breathing and nuclear-capable. 

Still captures from a video showing the heavily burdened H-6N first appeared on Twitter on Nov. 5, 2020. They came from a clip that had been posted on the Chinese social network Weibo, but which appears to have been subsequently taken down.

The payload under the aircraft is the same general length as the one seen in the video footage from October and reasonable estimates put it at around 40 feet in length, or about one third the length of the H-6N. The nose section, which strongly appears to be some kind of hypersonic vehicle, has visible fins and a nose with a flattened shape.

In the War Zone's analysis of the first video from October, we noted that the shape was very broadly reminiscent of what we had seen of the unpowered hypersonic boost-glide vehicle that sits on top of the DF-17 missile, referred to in the past as the DF-ZF, which China first showed off publicly at a major parade in Beijing last year. That same event was the public debut of the H-6N, which is designed to carry very large payloads, including missiles and drones, semi-recessed on the bottom of its fuselage. The H-6N is an evolution of the H-6K cruise missile carrier aircraft, which is a derivative of the Soviet-era Tu-16 Badger bomber.

DF-17s on parade in 2019., Chinese Internet

From what can be seen in the stills from the new clip, there is also the possibility that what we're seeing actually a very large, high-speed, air-breathing design of some kind. Certain features look broadly similar to an experimental hypersonic research vehicle called the Jia Geng No. 1, pictures of which first emerged last year. 

The Jia Geng No. 1, which Xiamen University Aerospace Academy developed together with Beijing Lingkong Tianxing Technology Company, Limited, ostensibly for hypersonic research purposes, is reportedly just under 30 feet long, which would make it shorter than whatever the H-6Ns have been carrying. This same general shape has been seen in other air-breathing hypersonic research vehicles, such as NASA's X-43, as well as weapon designs, such as the Soviet Union's Kh-90, which never entered service. 

Xiamen University
Chinese Internet
Chinese Internet
A NASA B-52 bomber carries the X-43A experimental hypersonic vehicle during a flight test., NASA
A prototype of the Soviet Kh-90 missile., Public Domain

There had been some speculation previously that the Jia Geng No. 1 could itself be a prototype of or test article supporting the development of a large air-breathing hypersonic weapon. Though the H-6Ns in the two videos we have seen now very much appear to be carrying missiles of some kind, it is also worth noting that this aircraft would present a very viable launch platform for outsized flight test vehicles, hypersonic and otherwise, for general aerospace research and development purposes, similar to how the U.S. Air Force and NASA have used B-52 bombers over the years.

Whatever the case, the vehicle at the front of this missile looks very different from a traditional ballistic missile warhead, even a maneuvering type, such as the one on China's DF-21D medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), which is thought to have anti-ship capabilities. There have been reports of an air-launched DF-21D being in development since at least 2017. The U.S. military has also said that the Chinese are developing an air-launched ballistic missile, which it has referred to as the CH-AS-X-13, but it's unclear if this is the same as the purported air-launched DF-21D.

A screengrab of a video showing the launch of a DF-21D missile., CCTV

The locations where these videos were shot may hold additional clues. In the screengrabs from the new video, it's not clear whether the aircraft was taking off or landing at the time or where the footage was shot. The previous video of an H-6N carrying a very large weapon, which appeared online in October, was subsequently geolocated to Neixiang Air Base, home of the People's Liberation Army Air Force's (PLAAF) 106th Brigade. There are high trees visible in the background of that footage that look broadly similar to the ones seen in the new clip. As such, it is possible that the two videos were shot in the same general area, but from different angles. 

A separate analysis of developments at Neixiang from The Diplomat in September had raised the possibility the 106th might have gained, or be in the process of gaining, a nuclear mission as part of China's efforts to establish a nuclear deterrent triad. "China is pursuing a 'nuclear triad' with the development of a nuclear capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) and improving its ground and sea-based nuclear capabilities," the Pentagon said in an annual report to Congress on Chinese military developments that it released that same month. 

This all raises the possibility that this missile, whatever its actual design, maybe nuclear-capable or a precursor developmental effort intended to lead to a future nuclear capability. The combination of this aircraft, which also has an aerial refueling capability, with an air-launched ballistic missile with a nuclear-tipped hypersonic vehicle of some kind could give the PLAAF a more realistic deterrent capability. 

It would also be very much in line with how the U.S. Air Force, at least, sees the future role of the equally non-stealthy B-52 bomber, which looks set to be a flying weapons truck to carry nuclear-armed cruise missiles and conventionally-armed hypersonic weapons, as well as other conventional weapons, for years to come. China is also believed to be developing a stealthy, flying-wing type strategic bomber, known as the H-20, which could be very roughly analogous to the B-2 Spirit, which, together with the H-6N, would give the PLAAF the same general mix of aerial deterrent options as its American counterparts.

Of course, these are just possibilities, and once again, this could be a research vehicle, not even a weapon necessarily. Because of the limited quality of the imagery, it is also possible that this could be something else, like a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle or even a ballistic missile, although the latter seems far less likely now with this new imagery.

Still, based on our standing analysis, these new images of the H-6N carrying an outsized weapon also speaks to the very real hypersonic arms race that is going on around the world now and that China is a very active participant in it. This is hardly surprising given that these weapons are presently virtually impossible to defend against and offer the ability to conduct very precise, short-notice strikes against time-sensitive and other high-value or highly defended targets at long ranges. This especially relevant considering the posture of U.S. forces arrayed in the western Pacific region who already closer to China, such as those on the U.S. islands of Guam or Wake Island, or forward-deployed in Japan

If nothing else, we seem to be getting more looks at this new and very large air-launched missile, which we have now seen images of H-6Ns carrying twice in just a matter of weeks.

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