Chinese H-6K bomber fires an air-launched ballistic missile for the first time in a ‘direct warning’ to the US Navy

Film material Trending on social media shows a Chinese H-6K bomber firing an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM), perhaps a KD-21 or YJ-21, in what could be called an unexpected first.

The Chinese H-6K bombers are an improved variant of the H-6. These bombers are considered essential for an attack on Taiwan, firing long-range missiles at multiple targets in coordination with naval and other air operations.

The footage showed a Chinese H-6 bomber firing one of its “mystery” ballistic missiles, which are popularly believed to be ship-killing weapons.

The clip shows the missile being released from the pylon under the bomber’s port wing, as seen from the cockpit. The footage also shows scenes of the H-6 crew preparing for a mission with the subsequent launch of multiple bombers.

Although details about the missile launch remain unclear, the same missile was likely on public display at the China Airshow in Zhuhai in November 2022. The missiles seen at the time were loaded onto the center pylons and were assessed by several experts as hypersonic weapons.

The weapon reportedly had the designation “2PZD-21” stenciled on the side. There have been speculations that the missile could be named KD-21 or YJ-21.

While a KD-21 is likely a land-attack variant, the YJ-21 could be an anti-ship missile. Chinese military analysts have largely suggested the weapon has both capabilities, but this cannot be confirmed due to a lack of specific details from Beijing.

Song Zhongping, a Chinese military specialist and TV commentator, told the Global Times that the device could likely hit slow-moving objects such as aircraft carriers as well as stationary targets.

Moreover, when the weapon was unveiled in November, officials from China’s propaganda agency said it was an anti-ship missile. Since the missile was put on display, there has been speculation that it is an anti-ship weapon that can destroy expensive ships such as aircraft carriers.

What we know so far

A PLA watcher and military expert who did not want to be quoted told EurAsian Times: “The new photo/video showing the missile being launched does not change our understanding of anything related to 2022, when it showed up near Zhuhai. We don’t know if it is just a land attack or if it is also capable of countering shipping. Both are certainly possible.”

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When asked if the missile could threaten the United States, the analyst said: “It’s just a new missile. Both sides are constantly introducing a number of new fires; it does not matter.”

This view was echoed by Philippines-based military analyst Miguel Miranda, who told the EurAsian Times: “Air-launched ballistic missiles are back in vogue after a few new types emerged in the late 2010s. But if we’re honest, air-launched ballistic missiles have been around since the 1950s, albeit in a different role than they are today. The PLAAF maintains a huge ammunition stockpile and continues to grow.”

A ballistic missile has a longer range when launched from the air than from land. The aircraft could launch the ALBM from a point closer to the enemy’s territory or military facility, increasing the missile’s effectiveness in evading the opponent’s radars.

With the ability to reach a hypersonic terminal velocity, as is typical of ballistic missiles, an ALBM would likely descend steeply toward its target. The ability to dynamically maneuver during the final attack phase and engage moving warships should make it more difficult for ground air defenses to defeat.

These long-range missiles are valuable because of their extreme range trajectories. They can be useful against stationary targets such as a large displacement battleship or against static targets on a fortified island.

In 2022, a Germany-based Chinese military aviation expert said the missile resembles the CM-401, a high-altitude anti-ship ballistic missile.

International Defense Analysis on X: "Chinese H6K bomber." /X
Chinese H-6K Bomber (via Platform

The sighting was significant given that the CM-401 can be launched from multiple platforms and perform full-range hypersonic maneuvers. There was widespread belief that the new ALBM could possibly be an air-launched variant of the CM-401, based on the similarities.

With a maximum diameter of about 2.8 feet, the CM-401 is comparable in size to Russia’s ground-based ballistic missile Iskander, which has also been adapted for air launch as the Kinzhal aero-launched ballistic missile. Several analysts have compared the Chinese ALBM to Kinzal missiles.

However, the new rocket has design changes. Compared to the CM-401, the rocket’s nose profile appears to have a greater finesse ratio, that is, it is slimmer and has a sharper tip. This suggests that the guidance system has changed.

Regardless of whether the Chinese missile resembles the Kinzhal or not, the release of the H-6K video comes at a time when Russia is ruthlessly using air-launched ballistic missiles to attack Ukrainian cities and cause significant damage.

The latest development highlights Beijing’s significant efforts to boost its air-launched anti-ship capability to thwart the possible intervention of the US Navy and its Supercarriers in a conflict over Taiwan.