The details you need.
Key point: The H-6K could prove to be one of China’s most important planes in wartime.
Today just three countries operate long-range heavy bombers. Russia has 170 or so Bears, Backfires and Blackjacks. America fields 160 swing-wing B-1s, radar-evading B-2s and stalwart B-52s.
China’s bomber force is smaller with around 130 H-6s. And most of the H-6s, copies of Russia’s Cold War Tu-16, lack the long range and heavy payload that many of the Russian and American bombers boast.
But that’s changing. After years of work, the Chinese air force has reportedly outfitted two regiments—together possessing around 36 bombers — with a new, much more capable “K” version of the H-6.
The H-6K is Beijing’s B-52 — a far-flying, fuel-efficient heavy bomber combining a simple, time-tested airframe with modern electronics and powerful, precision weaponry. Although to be fair, the B-52 flies much farther with more bombs and missiles.
Still, over the vast Pacific Ocean, where the tyranny of distance prevents most aircraft from operating efficiently, the H-6K could prove to be one of China’s most important planes in wartime.
But the H-6K could have a big weakness — one that actually has little to do with the bomber itself.
The H-6K is a 21st-century version of a Soviet bomber that first flew in April 1952. The Tupolev design bureau’s Tu-16 was the Soviet Union’s first big, jet-propelled bomber. Powered by two AM-3 turbojets buried in the wing roots, the subsonic Tu-16 could haul up to 10 tons of bombs — nuclear or conventional.
With a standard bombload and no aerial refueling, a Tu-16 could fly more than 1,000 miles before needing to turn back.
The Tu-16, which NATO called “Badger,” proved to be a solid, reliable airplane, much like the United States’ B-52, which first flew in 1954 and, with lots of upgrades, is still going strong.
Moscow quickly developed different versions of the Tu-16 for reconnaissance, electronic warfare, aerial refueling and to haul cruise missiles for attacks on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.
Faster and more modern Tu-22Ms and Tu-160s — NATO designations “Backfire” and “Blackjack,” respectively — replaced the Badgers as the Cold War ended. But the Tu-16 soldiered on … in China.
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