China’s H-6K Bomber Spotted With New Air-Launched Ballistic Missile

A new weapon, an air-launched ballistic missile, or ALBM, for China’s Xi’an H-6K bombers, has emerged. While its origins are unconfirmed, the missile looks very similar to the CM-401, previously known as a truck- or ship-launched anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) that is also capable of hitting static land targets. The latest development seems to point again to the considerable efforts Beijing is making to increase its advanced air-launched anti-shipping capability, which is becoming a fundamental part of its wider and fast-evolving anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy. But even if this is not intended to be an air-launched ASBM, or at least not in its first iterations, the ability to unleash it on land targets is very concerning, as well.

The initial photos show H-6K serial number 11097 with a pair of the new missiles — which are presented in inert, form-factor-representative captive rounds — on the center pylons under its wings, arriving at the civilian Zhuhai Jinwan Airport for the Airshow China trade exhibition. This particular aircraft is assigned to the 8th Bomber Division of the Southern Theater Command, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Missile-toting aircraft from this unit have also taken part in previous editions of Airshow China.

In terms of its appearance, the mystery weapon has obvious similarities to the CM-401 ASBM, suggesting it may be an adaptation of this same missile for an air-launched application.

One of the inert missiles under the right wing of the H-6K at Zhuhai. via Chinese internet
The meaning of the wording on the missile is unclear, although it seems unlikely the ‘D-21’ portion would relate to the much larger DF-21D ASBM. via Chinese internet

The state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) publicly unveiled the CM-401 at Zhuhai in 2018, as we reported on at the time. Back then, CASIC displayed two launch platforms: an 8×8 truck-mounted type and an apparent deck launcher for ships. Each version was armed with two self-contained missiles.

Since then, not a huge amount more has become known about the CM-401, although it’s thought to have a maximum diameter of approximately 2.8 feet. That puts it in broadly the same class as the Russian Iskander quasi-ballistic missile, which has also been adapted for air launch, as the Kinzhal. The Kinzhal, too, has been frequently attributed an anti-ship role, although this is apparently yet to be demonstrated.

Overall, though, the mystery missile’s profile is generally in keeping with other similar developments around the world, including the tapering, or bi-conic, shape of its body. A rough estimate of the new missile’s size — which includes an approximate length of around 23 feet — also seems to match fairly well with what we know about the CM-401.

According to CASIC, the CM-401 — at least in its original ground-launched and ship-launched applications — has a maximum range of just over 180 miles. The H-6, meanwhile, is widely attributed with a range of 3,700 miles, although the H-6K, with its more efficient engines, can fly significantly further still and can refuel in flight. In addition, the missile’s range would likely be increased greatly via air launch, with the delivery aircraft’s altitude extending the missile’s reach and improving its end-game kinematic performance.

A mockup of a CM-401 on display at the Zhuhai Airshow in 2018. In the background is the truck-based launcher. via Chinese internet

Already, however, there has been some suggestion that the original CM-401 might actually have a much greater range than CASIC claims, potentially even being able to reach targets at up to 600 miles, although this remains unconfirmed. This could be realized, at least to some degree, via a reduction in warhead size that also better fits the ASBM role.

Flying to its target, the CM-401 apparently is capable of using a ‘porpoising’ or ‘skip-glide’ trajectory in which the warhead abruptly pulls up at least once as it begins the terminal stage of its flight. This makes defense against the weapon more difficult, allows course adjustments, and, potentially, can also further extend its range under some circumstances.

A Chinese graphic showing a ballistic missile with the ‘porpoising’ or skip-glide trajectory associated with the CM-401. via Chinese internet

Even without the porpoising flightpath, the CM-401 is a very tricky target, with the manufacturer claiming a terminal speed of between Mach 4 and 6. Again, with delivery from an aircraft flying at altitude, this figure could also increase. This kind of performance could well put it in the hypersonic bracket (meaning speeds of Mach 5 and above), a trait shared by many ballistic missiles, including Kinzhal, with its high-speed endgame.

Another interesting claim from CASIC concerns the option of the CM-401’s launch platform firing two missiles on different trajectories against either one or two targets at once. This further complicates defenses against the threat. With two missiles on each H-6K, it’s feasible that the same kind of dual-launch capability could be employed. Depending on its weight, it’s even conceivable that an H-6K could carry more than two of the new missiles, although that would likely impose a severe performance penalty.

A PLAAF H-6K bomber takes part in a joint exercise with the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2018. Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

The CM-401 was apparently developed to tackle big and fairly slow-moving naval targets like aircraft carriers, as well as other major surface combatants and high-value vessels.

Based on a cutaway of the mockup of the CM-401 shown previously at Zhuhai, the missile seems to use a phased array radar in the nose to actively home in on the target during its terminal phase.

The CM-401 missile mockup, with a cutaway showing what appears to be a phased array radar in the nose. via Chinese internet

It’s easy to see how such a missile would fit into China’s multi-layered anti-ship defenses, particularly in the South China Sea. What’s more, by deploying H-6Ks to airstrips on China’s man-made islands in that region, the ASBMs would be able to reach targets at a much greater distance. For some time now, China has deployed missile-capable H-6 bombers to these islands, including Woody Island in the northern portion of the South China Sea.

Interestingly, CASIC also says that the CM-401 has a secondary land-attack function, which could also be relevant for an air-launched development of the same weapon. This would provide another similarity with the Kinzhal, which has reportedly been used in combat in Ukraine against fixed installations on land. Bringing another land-attack missile to the H-6’s inventory could also be attractive for China. The H-6K is primarily armed with up to six subsonic air-launched cruise missiles, although there have been persistent reports that the aircraft is also intended as a launch platform for an air-launched hypersonic missile. Regardless, the value to China of a land-attack ALBM against high-value static targets, like Andersen Air Force Base on Guam or Wake Island, is fairly clear.

An official video from China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force showing H-6 bombers taking part in a simulated attack on Andersen Air Force Base on Guam:

The South China Sea is also just one of a number of maritime flashpoints in which China might want to call upon air-launched ASBMs. In the East China Sea, tensions between China and Japan run high due to conflicting territorial claims.

Even closer to home, the Taiwan Strait has seen rising tensions in recent months, and should Beijing attempt to “reunify” Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China by force, then efforts to remove any maritime surface threats from the theater would be a priority. The CM-401, when launched from China’s coast, could even hit targets on the eastern coast of Taiwan. With air launch, a weapon in this class would be able to range much further and attack with much greater unpredictability.

At this point, we have no confirmation that the missile forms under the H-6K are indeed related to the CM-401. However, the H-6 does seem to be fast becoming a ‘weapon truck’ of choice for carrying outsized stores like this, as well as high-speed drones. The Chinese are clearly looking at the H-6 in a similar light to how the U.S. Air Force views the B-52. With that in mind, even when the H-20 stealth bomber arrives, the H-6 could still be very useful for launching larger payloads at standoff ranges that also allow these increasingly vulnerable aircraft to stay well away from enemy defenses.

China already is established as a pioneer in the field of air-launched ballistic missiles, or ALBMs, with the H-6 having previously been adapted for the carriage of a much larger weapon in this class. This is the weapon known by the Western designation CH-AS-X-13 and associated with the H-6N version of the bomber, specially adapted for the carriage of outsize loads.

The video in the Tweet embedded below shows some of the best footage we have seen so far of the much larger CH-AS-X-13 ALBM:

The CH-AS-X-13 also remains generally mysterious, although it appears to be related to the YJ-21, or Eagle Strike 21, a weapon that is itself thought to be a ship-launched version of the ground-based, medium-range DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod 5), an ASBM that reportedly became operational in 2010. It could be, therefore, that there are now two ALBMs of different range classes developed for the H-6, both of which have their origins in ground-based/ship-launched weapons.

DF-21D medium-range ballistic missiles on parade. Imaginechina via AP

It is worth noting that the concept of an air-launched ballistic missile is actually nothing new, with the U.S Air Force planning to adopt a nuclear-tipped ALBM, known as the Skybolt, as a payload for its B-52s more than 50 years ago. This project was canceled, however, and it’s only more recently that the concept has reappeared, not only in China but also in Russia and Israel

China now appears very much wedded to the concept of missiles in this class, and adapting existing ballistic missile designs for carriage by long-range bombers seems to make a good deal of sense. After all, the range of these weapons could also allow H-6Ks to engage threats closer to the mainland from within the country’s own air defense umbrella — akin to the benefits of potentially being able to engage carrier strike groups in the South China Sea from the Gobi Desert. They could also fly far out to sea to take on far more remote targets.

Moreover, China’s anti-ship weapons now range from subsonic cruise missiles launched from stealthy catamarans, all the way up to medium- and intermediate-range ASBMs with maneuvering warheads. These have reportedly demonstrated capabilities, at least to some degree, against moving targets.

Alongside more established shore- and sea-based anti-ship missiles, an emerging class of air-launched weapons now seems to be becoming part of a multi-faceted approach to reinforce China’s various territorial claims across the Asia Pacific region, and deny opponents access to wide areas during potential regional conflicts.

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