It looks like the Chinese Navy has a new bomber, and its arsenal of anti-ship missiles could raise the stakes in contested seas

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy recruits chant slogan during a parade to mark the end of a semester at a military base of the North Sea Fleet, in Qingdao, Shandong province December 5, 2013.

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Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy recruits chant slogan during a parade to mark the end of a semester at a military base of the North Sea Fleet, in Qingdao, Shandong province December 5, 2013.
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REUTERS/China Daily

  • Satellite images from September 7 suggest that the Chinese Navy has acquired a new strategic bomber, increasing the amount of power China could bring to a potential conflict.
  • The new planes, presumably Xian H-6J bombers, would presumably replace the older H-6G maritime striker bombers, as the new aircraft are thought to carry additional anti-ship cruise missiles and have a greater range than their predecessors.
  • Some observers suspect that China could, with aerial refueling, use these aircraft to patrol and project power across almost all of the South China Sea.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) appears to have a new bomber in its ranks, and it could boost China’s military strength in disputed waterways.

Satellite images of the PLANAF base at Guiping-Mengshu in Guangxi Province, China show what observers suspect are Xian H-6J bombers, new naval variants of the upgraded H-6Ks that have been in service with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) since 2011, IHS Janes first reported Thursday.

The H-6Js are expected to replace the H-6G maritime striker bombers first fielded in the 1990s, The Diplomat reported Friday.

The new bombers are believed to carry three times as many anti-ship missiles as their predecessor, with experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Missile Defense Project predicting that the new aircraft will be paired with the YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missile, which can cover roughly 400 km in about six minutes.

The Chinese PLAN has at times found itself in tense showdowns with the US military. When the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation near Chinese military outposts in the Spratly Islands earlier this month, the Chinese navy dispatched the Type 052C Luyang II-class guided-missile destroyer Lanzhou to confront the American warship.

The PLANAF H-6Js would give China extra firepower in any potential conflict. The H-6Js are also thought to have a greater range of about 3,500 kilometers, allowing these aircraft to patrol almost all of the South China Sea with mid-air refueling.

The satellite photos, taken on September 7, appeared on Twitter around the start of October.

The PLANAF appears to have at least four H-6Js in its arsenal, but it will presumably want to establish a full regiment, The Diplomat explained.

Chinese bombers have been increasingly active above contested waterways, such as the East and South China Seas, in recent years, according to a 2018 Department of Defense report on China’s military power.

“The PLA has rapidly expanded its overwater bomber operating areas, gaining experience in critical maritime regions and likely training for strikes against US and allied targets,” the report said. Last year, the PLA flew a dozen operational flights through the Sea of Japan, into the Western Pacific, around Taiwan, and over the East and South China Seas – all potential regional flash points.

In recent months, the US military has been putting pressure on China with regular B-52H Stratofortress heavy long-range bomber flights through the East and South China Seas, with the most recent occurring this past week.

“One US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bomber, deployed to the 96th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, conducted a routine training mission Oct. 10,” Pacific Air Forces told Business Insider on Friday. “The bomber integrated with four Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) F-15Js in the vicinity of the East China Sea before returning to Guam.”

China has previously characterized these types of flights as “provocative,” criticizing the US for its repeated flybys in August and September.

The recent flight, like the many others before it, was in support of US Indo-Pacific Command’s Continuous Bomber Presence operations, which are intended to send a deterrence message to any and all potential challengers.