A new, more complete look at China's mysterious very large air-dropped bomb has emerged. Past reports have said that this could be a thermobaric type that is very roughly analogous to the U.S. Air Force's GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, better known as the "Mother of All Bombs," or the reported Russian Father of All Bombs.
The new view of the bomb is seen in a video clip that is part of a larger montage that was recently uploaded on the Chinese social media website Weibo by the official account for the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) component of the PLA's Central Theater Command. The complete video was contained in a post marking the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the PLAAF on November 11, 1949.
The video does not include any specific details about the bomb or its nomenclature, but shows it falling from what appears to be the bomb bay of a Xian H-6-series bomber. Whether or not the video clip showing a munition hitting a training or test range that follows the footage of the weapon being released is in any way related is unknown.
Externally, the weapon is unremarkable. Its overall shape and outward features do not offer any strong indications of what might be contained inside. There is what appears to be some kind of fuze in the nose and it has a tail assembly with what looks to be six fins connected together at the very rear by a ring. There are no indications that the weapon has a guidance package and the general design of the tail is something that is commonly seen on older Chinese unguided bombs, as well as Soviet-designed types that remain in service in Russia and elsewhere.
The existence of this bomb first emerged in 2019 in a promotional video montage, seen below, from the Chinese state-run defense conglomerate China North Industries Group Corporation Limited, or NORINCO.
"This is the first time the new bomb's destructive powers have been shown in public, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Wednesday on its mobile application," Global Times, a newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party reported at that time, citing a story from a different state-run news agency, Xinhua. "Calling the several-ton-weapon a Chinese version of the 'Mother of All Bombs,' the [Xinhua] report said that it is China's most powerful non-nuclear bomb, and that the H-6K bomber could only carry one at a time due to its size."
The Global Times report has since been taken offline, though a copy remains available via the Internet Archive. It's not immediately clear whether the original Xinhua piece, which may have been in Chinese only, is available online.
To date, neither NORINCO nor the PLA appears to have released any official information about this bomb.
"Judging from the video and the size of the H-6K's bomb bay, this bomb is approximately five to six meters long," Global Times reported in 2019, citing Wei Dongxu, an independent military analyst in Beijing.
"The massive blast can easily and completely wipe out fortified ground targets such as reinforced buildings, bastions, and defense shelters," Wei reportedly also told the outlet. He added that it could "be used to clear a landing zone for troops on helicopters to rappel down, in case the area is covered by obstacles such as forests" and "spread fear among enemies."
What Wei here is describing are the capabilities of large thermobaric weapons, in general. Weapons in this broad category, whether they be aerial bombs like the American GBU-43/B or some other type of thermobaric munition, like the 220mm rockets fired by Russia's TOS-1A, are designed to engage targets through a combination of a massive high-pressure blast wave and very high heat.
As noted, those effects can be devastating against structures and fortifications, above and below ground, to include caves complexes, as well as targets in the open. Since the Vietnam War, the U.S. military has demonstrated the ability of weapons like this, including the MOAB's predecessor, the BLU-82/B "Daisy Cutter," to be able to quickly clear trees and other foliage to create space for helicopters to land and to seal or otherwise neutralize caves and tunnels, among other things. Studies have shown that the blast wave could be usable as a tool for clearing minefields, too. The potential psychological impact of these terrifying weapons has also been noted.
Historically, when it comes to large air-dropped thermobaric bombs, their massive size has been a key limiting factor. The U.S. Air Force is currently only capable of employing the GBU-43/B via cargo aircraft, such as the C-130 Hercules, something that was similarly true of the BLU-82/B. The same issue applies to very large conventional bunker-buster bombs, like the GBU-57/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), which has only ever been dropped by B-52 and B-2 bombers.
This all, in turn, imposes its own operational limits on these weapons, especially if they have to be delivered onto the target by non-stealthy aircraft, such as the H-6K. For instance, while the U.S. Air Force has demonstrated the B-52 can drop the MOP, the weapon is only currently approved for operational use on the stealthy B-2. As it stands now, the C-130-dropped GBU-43/B is largely intended for use in more permissive environments. It has only ever been used once, to date, in Afghanistan in 2017, where American forces enjoyed total air superiority.
If this mystery Chinese bomb is indeed a thermobaric design, it can only raise questions about how the PLAAF might envision employing it. The H-6K, an evolution of Xian's H-6 design, itself originally derived from the Soviet-era Tu-16 Badger, does retain an ability to drop conventional bombs, including from its bomb bay, but is primarily viewed today as a stand-off missile carrier aircraft given its vulnerability to more modern air defenses.
One possibility could be that NORINCO and the PLAAF have been using the H-6-series to test the bomb because of the availability of the aircraft – akin to using the B-52 during the development of the MOP – but that it is actually intended to arm a more survivable future design. The U.S. military has assessed in the past that China is developing two stealthy bomber-type aircraft, the H-20, believed to be a strategic-focused stealthy flying wing design similar in broad strokes to the B-2, and a stealthy "regional" type sometimes referred to as the JH-XX.
The PLAAF could also plan to use stealthy and otherwise advanced crewed and uncrewed combat aircraft, along with other capabilities, such as electronic warfare systems, to help clear routes to key targets for H-6s carrying these bombs, although that is an increasingly unrealistic proposition against a peer competitor.
However they might be delivered, large thermobaric bombs could offer the PLAAF a useful non-nuclear option for engaging various kinds of targets, such as enemy forces entrenched in fortified positions. These are target sets that PLA, overall, could easily be presented with during any future large-scale conflict, such as ones against the United States in the Western Pacific or with India in the Himalayan Plateau.
This is, of course, all based on the limited information available now. It is possible that the PLAAF has other plans for these bombs, which could turn out to be not thermobaric in nature at all. What is clear is that the service still has an interest in the bomb, whatever its internal design might be, if it hasn't already been fielded at least on some limited level.
Whether or not the bomb's inclusion in the recently released PLA Central Theater Command video means that more information about the weapon may now emerge remains to be seen.
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