Ahead of the upcoming Zhuhai Air Show 2022, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force landed the H-6K Bomber carrying two new-type ‘air-launched ballistic missiles’ (ALBM) in Zhuhai on November 3.
The H-6K carried one such missile on each wing, reported Global Times, citing the video report by China Central Television (CCTV). While Chinese officials did not specify the weapon’s exact type, one of the missiles was seen with “2PZD-21” scrawled on its body.
Chinese media reports stated that it appeared to be some air-to-ground missile with a shape very similar to a ballistic missile.
As soon as the images started to flood social media, the most striking observation made by experts was that these missiles bore a resemblance to the Russian Kinzhal aero-ballistic hypersonic missile and that it could have an anti-ship variant.
An H-6K bomber of the PLA Air Force carrying two new-type missiles arrived at the Airshow China 2022 site on Thursday. Apparently the first time the bomber has displayed its air-launched ballistic missiles: observers pic.twitter.com/MqvcVnQcq0
— Zhang Meifang张美芳 (@CGMeifangZhang) November 3, 2022
Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times that the missiles had some resemblances to the Russian Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile by appearance, so this new missile could also be hypersonic.
Song also stated that it could likely hit stationary and slowly moving targets like aircraft carriers and that this type of missile may come in on-ground and ship-launched versions. None of these claims have been corroborated by Chinese officials yet.
The development comes when Russia has deployed MiG-31K armed with Kinzhal missiles (already used against Ukraine) to Belarus, as recently reported by EurAsian Times. The deployment of the Kinzhal onboard the MiG-31K has essentially put all possible targets in Europe and the UK at risk, rattling the West.
The Kinzhal is an air-launched aero-ballistic missile with a range of more than 2,000 kilometers. When launched by the MiG-31K, the air pressure in front of the hypersonic missile creates a plasma cloud at hypersonic speeds that absorbs radio frequencies, making it invisible to radar.
🇨🇳⚡Chinese H-6K bomber with a new weapon. It looks like the Chinese version of the Russian Kinzhal air-launched Hypersonic ballistic missile. pic.twitter.com/OAEs8vqsNw
— OsintTv📺 (@OsintTv) November 3, 2022
Due to its improved maneuverability, the missile can avoid any anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense system that is currently in place. These features are enough to alarm the NATO allies that cannot intercept a hypersonic missile yet due to its unpredictable trajectory.
On top of contending with Russia’s power projection, the West, led by the United States, would be further threatened by China sporting and deploying a similar missile. Even countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India that remain marred in tensions with Beijing would be keenly watching the sneak-peak of this new missile.
According to analysts, other tactical aircraft, such as fighter planes and fighter bombers, may also carry such a missile under their bellies.
China’s New ALBM Similar To Other Missiles
The H-6K Bomber of the PLAAF has generally been seen with subsonic and supersonic cruise missiles. However, this is the first time the H-6K Bomber flashed its aero-ballistic missiles, which have typically hypersonic terminal speed in flight and are way harder to intercept than cruise missiles.
The aero-ballistic missiles are also comparatively lethal owing to the angle of strike adopted by them.
“ALBMs offer greater range than equivalent sized ground-launched BMs, by nature of being air-launched. Air launch also offers other greater effective range because the aircraft (fighter or bomber etc.) has its combat radius as well that it can fly to before launching the weapon”, said Chinese military aviation analyst Rick Joe.
So far the best images of the H-6K serial number 11097 with the new ballistic missile under its wings.
(Images via @航空工业 and @瘦驼 from Weibo) pic.twitter.com/XfcwQ8fqqn
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) November 3, 2022
The aircraft can launch a missile from a position closer to the adversary, making the missile harder to intercept. When asked whether the Chinese missile was similar to the Kinzhal, Joe said, “I suppose it’s similar to Kinzhal in the sense that a Kalibr is similar to a Tomahawk — i.e., entirely different lineages from each other, but ends up being similar in role and dimensions.” Both Kalibr and Tomahawk are ship-launched cruise missiles.
Germany-based Chinese military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht said in a tweet that the missile resembles the CM-401, a high-altitude ballistic anti-ship missile. It is significant as the CM-401 is capable of full-range hypersonic maneuvering and can be launched from various platforms. The similarities, thus, indicate that the new ALBM could even be an air-launched version of the CM-401.
Concerning the new Chinese ballistic missile seen on the H-6K, it seems as if it not a new system but a ground-launched one adopted for aerial launch and the CM-401 is a likely – IMO the most likely – option.
What do others think? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/8sGUSMeTa7
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) November 3, 2022
The CM-401 has a maximum diameter of approximately 2.8 feet, placing it in the same category as the Russian ground-based Iskander ballistic missile, which has also been modified for air launch as the Kinzhal aero-launched ballistic missile.
The latter is said to have an anti-ship role that has not been operationally demonstrated yet. So, it is also speculated that the new ALBM flashed by PLAAF could be an air-launched variant of the CM-401 missile.
The H-6 is said to have a range of 3,700 miles or almost 6,000 kilometers, while the H-6K, thanks to its more efficient engines, can travel much farther and refuel in the air.
With the delivery aircraft’s altitude increasing the missile’s reach and enhancing its end-game kinematic performance, the ALBM missile’s range would also probably be considerably extended via air launch.
When asked whether the new Chinese ALBM resembles Kinzhal, Andreas said, “Yes, it is. In fact, it seems China has – or could have – two such systems for different ranges, namely this for shorter and the one off the H-6N for longer ranges.”
He further added that it was difficult to say how it would add to China’s tactical advantage and said, “to have more options available always expands your capabilities, especially in terms of flexibility.”
Although there have been recurring rumors that the H-6K is also intended to serve as a launch platform for an air-launched hypersonic missile, the H-6K is primarily armed with up to six subsonic air-launched cruise missiles.
Details of the H-6K missile https://t.co/WVNV9qxjzb pic.twitter.com/fcg8y4QtVz
— Jesus Roman (@jesusfroman) November 3, 2022
Military experts have long maintained that any conflict between China and the United States would arise in the Indo-Pacific. Having air-launched ballistic missiles will come in handy if China strikes US targets in the Pacific, such as Guam’s Andersen Air Base.
While China already has long-range missiles, having an air launch capability provides a tactical advantage and precision and covers a far larger geographical spread.
The latest development appears to underline the significant efforts Beijing is making to improve its advanced air-launched anti-shipping capability, which is increasingly aiding its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy.
This is especially important as any armed conflict between China and Taiwan backed by the West would be fought over the seas.
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