China's new H-6N strategic bomber could carry CJ-100 supersonic cruise missiles or the WZ-8 supersonic stealth spy drone, increasing its maximum strike range to 6,000 km (3,728 miles), military sources said.
The latest variant of the plane was designed to carry weaponry that was seen by the public for the first time at China's National Day parade last month, a source close to the People's Liberation Army Air Force said on Friday.
"The semi-recessed area under the fuselage of the H-6N is designed to carry either the WZ-8 or the CJ-100," said the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of defence matters.
The CJ-100 — also known as DF-100 — is the PLA's third-generation ground-attack cruise missile. Its predecessor, the subsonic CJ-10, was carried by the H-6K variant of the bomber and had a range of more than 1,500 km. As the CJ-100 is significantly larger than the CJ-10, some analysts expected its range to be as much as 2,000 km.
When a flight of three H-6Ns passed over Beijing during rehearsals for the October 1 military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, military experts and aircraft enthusiasts reported two distinct new features: an aerial refuelling probe on the planes' noses and a semi-recessed area on their bellies.
The latest designs suggested that the planes could carry oversized weapons payloads to the required altitude and launch coordinates, the air force source said.
Aerial refuelling could expand the H-6N's operational range by 500 km over the H-6K to more than 4,000 km. So, in theory, the CJ-100 could take the H-6N's strike range to about 6,000 km, the source said.
In September, the PLA Rocket Force released a 70th anniversary video but later made an unexplained two-second edit that cut footage of a missile of an unreported type taking off from a mobile launcher.
This was identified as the CJ-100 by Naval & Merchant Ships, a military magazine published by the China Institute of Marine Technology and Economy think tank. On October 1, the CJ-100s were paraded inside canisters and their true shape could not be seen.
In the unedited rocket force video, the missile appeared to have two stages that included a separate rocket booster attached to the bottom. The booster was about 3.3 metres (10.8 feet) long by 1 metre in diameter, while the main body of the missile was 6.6 metres long and about 50 cm in diameter.
As the Chinese equivalent of the US's "B" variant long-range anti-ship missile, the CJ-100 has a ceiling of 24,000 metres, a cruising of speed Mach 4 and a top speed of Mach 4.5, the Naval & Merchant Ships article said.
As a result of China lagging behind its competitors in scramjet engine development, the CJ-100 uses less powerful ramjet engines with rocket boosters and an aerodynamic air inlet designed to improve its speed and lower its cost.
Another Chinese military source said on Friday that when the CJ-100 is adapted for the H-6N, the rocket booster should be removed as the aircraft would provide the initial velocity and altitude to carry the weapon to top speed.
The H-6 — which is based on the Russian Cold War-era Tupolev 16 (known to NATO as the Badger) that went into service in 1954 — has been the mainstay of China's bomber force since the 1970s.
"The new bomber is still unable to break the first island chain because it is not a stealth bomber and is easier to detect by an opponent's radar systems," the air force source said, referring to an area composed of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines that China believes it must secure in the event of conflict.
The WZ-8 could be used to quickly identify distant targets before a conventional strike force engaged. That could help the PLA improve its effectiveness and change its conventional strike strategies.
"Compared with the advanced American bombers like the B-1B, the B2 and the B-21 stealth bombers that are equipped with rotary launchers, as well as the Russian Tu-160 supersonic bomber, China has a long way to go to catch up, because the PLA just owns the H-6K and H-6N, which were modified from the Soviet-era," the source said.
The H-6K have played a key role in the PLA's "island encirclement" drills over Taiwan since early 2018. The exercises were designed by Beijing to send a warning to the island's independence-leaning government.