PLAAF fires air-launched ballistic missiles

Videos circulating on social media show a PLAAF H-6K bomber firing an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM), possibly a KD-21 or YJ-21, in what can only be described as an unprecedented event. The H-6K bombers, a modernized version of the H-6, play a strategic role in a potential attack on Taiwan by conducting long-range strikes against various targets in coordination with naval operations and other air tactics.

'Threat to US Navy': PLAAF fires air-launched ballistic missiles
Video screenshot

The video recordings the moment an H-6 bomber unleashes one of its elusive ballistic missiles, widely believed to be ship-destroying weapons. From the pilot’s seat you can watch the missile unfold from the stand under the bomber’s port wing. There is also additional coverage of the H-6 crew preparing for a mission, captured during the bomber’s subsequent launch.

Although available information on the missile launch is limited, it is likely that the missile on display is the same one displayed on the public exhibition stage of Airshow China, held in Zhuhai in November 2022. These missiles, attached to the central pylons, were believed to be hypersonic to be. weapons by various missile specialists.

Double functionality

The weapon is provided with the marking “2PZD-21” painted on it conspicuously. Speculation is rife that the missile could be called KD-21 or YJ-21. The KD-21 is suspected to be a variant designed for land attack, while the YJ-21 could serve as an anti-ship missile. Despite most Chinese military experts claiming this weapon has dual functionality, substantiation remains elusive due to Beijing’s coyness on specific details.

With his expert insight, Song Zhongping, a veteran military specialist and television expert from China, shared with Global Times the possibility that the weapon is capable of hitting both stationary targets and slow-moving targets such as aircraft carriers.

Furthermore, when the weapon was first unveiled to the world in November, figures from China’s propaganda agency labeled it as an anti-ship missile. Thus, since the weapon’s first exposure, there has been much speculation about its potential as an anti-ship weapon capable of wreaking havoc on valuable assets such as aircraft carriers.

'Threat to US Navy': PLAAF fires air-launched ballistic missiles
Photo credit: Twitter

Know data

An anonymous defense expert who has been closely monitoring the PLA stated that the recent footage of the missile launch does not provide any significant new insights. “The latest photos or videos of Zhuhai 2022 do not change our understanding in any profound way. It is unclear whether the missile is only intended for land attacks or can also be aimed at ships. Both scenarios are very likely they explain.

When asked about the potential threat this new missile could pose to the United States, the analyst replied: “There is nothing earth-shattering about the new rocket. Both sides are constantly unveiling new ammunition; it is business as usual.”

Complementing this analysis, a military specialist based in the Philippines agreed with his comments: “We have seen a resurgence of interest in air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBMs), with several new variants emerging in late 2010. However, let’s not forget that ALBMs have been around since the 1950s, albeit in different roles. The PLAAF has an extensive stock of ammunition, and it continues to expand.

Greater distances

It is notable that a ballistic missile launched from the air can travel greater distances than a land-based deployment. An aircraft could potentially release the ALBM closer to enemy areas or military installations, providing a strategic advantage in evading enemy radars.

The missile’s potential ability to reach hypersonic terminal velocity, a common feature of ballistic missiles, suggests they will likely dive steeply toward their intended target. Combined with its dynamic maneuverability during the final attack phase and its potential anti-ship capabilities, the missile poses a significant challenge to ground air defenses.

'Threat to US Navy': PLAAF fires air-launched ballistic missiles
Photo credit: Twitter

The value of these long-range projectiles lies in their extraordinary range. They have enormous potential against stationary targets, from large battleships to fortified island entities.

In 2022, a Germany-based expert on Chinese military aviation analyzed the similarities between these missiles and the high-altitude anti-ship ballistic missile: the CM-401.

This claim was significant because the CM-401 is known for its ability to be launched from multiple platforms and perform full-range hypersonic maneuvers. Observations suggested the possibility that the recently unveiled ALBM could be an air-launched version of the CM-401, given their striking similarities.


The CM-401, with a maximum diameter of about 2.8 feet, can be compared in size to the Russian ground-integrated Iskander ballistic missile, which has been adapted for air launch as the Kinzhal aero-launched ballistic missile. In fact, several interpretations have drawn parallels between the Chinese ALBM and the Kinzhal missiles.

However, changes are noticeable in the design of the rocket. For example, compared to the CM-401, the missile’s frontal design seems to embody a higher finesse ratio: it is sleeker and sharper, indicating a possible revision of the guidance system.

Regardless of the similarity to the Kinzhal, the disclosure of the H-6K video occurred during a crucial moment when Russia had relentlessly used air-launched ballistic missiles to inflict significant damage on Ukrainian cities.

These recent advances underscore Beijing’s intensified efforts to strengthen its air-launched anti-ship capabilities to counter possible interference by the US Navy and its Supercarriers in a conflict over Taiwan.


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