Recent bomber flights reflect China’s rapid military modernization

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  • China trapped its H-6 bombers on recent military flights near Taiwan.
  • China has rapidly expanded its long-range bomber flights over water in recent years, attracting the attention of US military officials.
  • These operations reflect the rapid expansion and modernization of China’s military, particularly its air force.

39 Chinese military planes flew into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Sunday. It was the most in a single outage since October.

China’s near-daily flights into ADIZ – which oversees Taiwan but is not territorial airspace – are often operated by fighter jets and special aircraft. The January 23 sortie was the first since December 10 and the fifth since October 4 involving an H-6 bomber records kept by the Taiwan Ministry of Defense.

China’s bomber flights around the first island chain, which includes Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, are relatively recent and reflect the rapid growth in size and capability of the Chinese military.

When US Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown assumed his former job as commander of the Pacific Air Forces in July 2018, the advancement of China’s bomber fleet over the past five years was highlighted in an early briefing by his staff.

These bombers “would not normally operate over water,” Brown said last December. “It was very rare that they operated over water and in fact when they operated over water it was a reportable event.”

A Chinese Air Force H-6K bomber

A Chinese H-6K bomber flies over Bashi Strait on September 12, 2016.

Xinhua/Guo Wei via Getty Images


“Fast-forward, probably four or five years later, skimming the water several times a day was a regular occurrence,” Brown said. “So it’s become the norm.”

The focus on long-range bomber flights emerged in the mid-2010s. In April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping endorsed the Air Force’s vision for strategic operations, and a year later an H-6K flew through the Bashi Channel between the Philippines and Taiwan for the first time. A few months later, according to a Rand Corporation report, bombers flew through the Miyako Strait between the Japanese islands north of Taiwan.

Those flights have only increased. In late 2016, the Chinese leadership ordered the Air Force to begin flights around Taiwan, which has key military bases on its east coast.

In 2017, the new chief of China’s Air Force said the service’s strategic mission required it to be able to “project power and strike at long range” and that drills over “open seas will become a regular part of training “.

In 2018, H-6 bombers were deployed to a Chinese outpost in the South China Sea for the first time, landing at Beijing’s largest base in the Paracel Islands.

“Your own B-52”

Chinese H-6K bomber

Chinese H-6K bomber

VCG/VCG via Getty Images


The H-6 is based on the Soviet Tu-16 bomber, which China was licensed to manufacture in the late 1950s. The Bomber has been continuously improved since then, but has evolved rapidly in recent years.

“I think a decade or two ago we would all have laughed heartily at China’s bomber force,” said Lyle Goldstein, director of Asia engagement at Defense Priorities and an expert on the Chinese military. “In the early 2000s they repurposed the whole thing and put all the new fancy electronics on it.”

“Most importantly, they gave it a whole new weapon class that looked really scary,” Goldstein added, pointing to the YJ-12, believed to be China’s most powerful anti-ship cruise missile.

The H-6K entered service with the Chinese Air Force around 2010. According to the 2021 Pentagon report on China’s military, the H-6K “has more efficient turbofan engines” for a longer range of more than 2,200 miles.

The H-6K can carry six land-attack cruise missiles, giving it “a long-range precision strike capability” that could allow it to reach targets in the second chain of islands, including Guam, according to the Pentagon report.

“They effectively built their own B-52 — that is, an old-style bomber that’s well-suited to launching all sorts of nasty munitions,” Goldstein said.

Porcelain H-6K

A Chinese H-6K bomber.

China Media/PLA


The H-6K had a number of other upgrades – including better engines and airframes, upgraded avionics and upgraded sensors – that allow it to carry larger payloads and fly further. In recent years, two sub-variants with additional modifications have also entered service.

The H-6J is a maritime strike version with six external pylons capable of carrying YJ-12s, allowing it to “attack warships as far as the second chain of islands” and “significantly extend the range” of Chinese naval aviation, the Pentagon said. China has also released H-6J exercises that include conventional bombing and mine laying.

China’s Air Force introduced the H-6N in 2019. With an air-to-air refueling capability and the ability to carry air-launched ballistic missiles, it is “optimized for long-range strikes” and can serve as the airborne component of China’s “nascent nuclear missile triad,” according to the Pentagon report.

China’s long-range bombing flights serve both domestic and foreign policy objectives, demonstrating military capabilities at home and abroad and training aircrew in the real world. According to the Rand report, flights around Taiwan also appear to be an attempt to pressure the island’s government.

China’s bomber operations have also been an area for cooperation with Russia. Their bombers twice performed joint flights between South Korea and Japan, which allowed them to conduct complex training and send a message to common enemies.

“You have the resources”

Chinese bomber

A Chinese H-6K bomber is seen by a Russian plane during a joint patrol over the western Pacific December 22, 2020.

Russian Defense Ministry press service via AP


This bomber ability is still relatively new, as are the assets being developed to support it, such as: B. special tanker aircraft. That capability could take another decade to mature, but it shouldn’t be counted in a conflict, Goldstein said.

“I think in a war situation, China will basically fight its way through the first chain of islands. They will create the corridors for those bombers. Will the bombers make it home now? That’s a good question,” Goldstein said. “When they build the bombers, I think they think they can protect them and they can have a real mission set.”

According to the Pentagon, China’s bomber and fighter jet fleet consists of around 450 aircraft estimates The number of H-6s is around 230.

This fleet will continue to grow and be modernized, but China is also working on other projects. The country’s air force announced in 2016 that it was working on a “next-generation long-range bomber.”

China H-20 stealth bomber

A rendering of China’s new H-20 stealth bomber.

CCTV/ 军迷天下 via YouTube



Dubbed the H-20, the new strategic bomber is said to have a range of more than 5,200 miles, a larger payload that can contain both conventional and nuclear weapons, “a stealth design” and “many fifth-generation technologies.” ‘ according to the Pentagon.

China’s Air Force has released promotional material of H-20 models, which resemble the US B-2 stealth bomber.

China’s bomber development appears to be modeled heavily on Russia’s experience, Goldstein said. A lack of other partners means Beijing has leaned on Moscow for complex training and advanced technology, particularly aeronautical technology that Chinese engineers have yet to master.

But projects like the H-20 illustrate how China is closing that capability gap, said Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at Rand Corporation.

“The stealth bomber, the Russians never developed anything like that,” Heath told Insider last year. “They have the resources that the Russians just don’t have anymore, so they’re building on the Russians in a lot of ways, but now they’re starting to surpass a lot of what the Russians taught them.”

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