A vague image of a Xian Aircraft Corporation H-6K with a nose-mounted refuelling probe suggests additional missions may be in store for this much-modified 65-year-old medium bomber design, which first flew in 1952 as the Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-16.
Appearing for the first time on 15 August on a microblogging site on the Weibo website in overall yellow primer typical of Chinese aircraft prototypes, unofficial Chinese sources suggest this modified H-6K first flew in December 2016.
For much of this year Chinese observers have speculated this variant may perform two missions.
The first of these could be long-range strategic nuclear strike. Refuelling would extend the estimated 3,000 km combat radius of the Russian Soloviev D-30-KP2 turbofan powered H-6K, further extending the reach of its six nuclear-capable 1,500 km-range KD-20/CJ-10K land-attack cruise missiles.
Although a 2,500 km-range version of the KD-20 may be in development, this H-6K version would require multiple refuellings to reach strategic targets such as Hawaii or the US West Coast.
A second mission suggested by Chinese observers could be to launch satellites or ballistic missiles. At the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) displayed a model of its three-stage, 13-ton, 550 km orbit-capable 'Air-launched Launch Vehicle”, showing it would be deployed from an H-6. Air-to-air refuelling could allow for take-off at lower fuel capacity to compensate for the weight of the launch vehicle, which could perform anti-satellite (ASAT) or satellite launch missions.
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