China is developing a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile, likely based off the DF-21.
China is developing and has been flight-testing a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) along with a new long-range strategic bomber to deliver it, The Diplomat has learned.
According to U.S. government sources with knowledge of the latest intelligence assessments on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, China has conducted five flight tests of the unnamed missile. The U.S. intelligence community is calling the new missile the CH-AS-X-13.
The missile was first tested in December 2016 and was most recently tested in the last week of January 2018, according to one source. In recent years, the directors of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) have made reference to this nuclear-capable ALBM in their two most recent on-record worldwide threat assessments.
The two most recent tests of the system involved aerial launches off a modified H-6K strategic bomber capable of being refueled while in the air.
The new bomber, dubbed the H6X1/H-6N by the U.S. intelligence community, has been modified from standard variant H-6s for the ALBM delivery mission. The modifications have been made by Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation, the manufacturer of all H-6 bomber variants since the late-1950s. The H6X1/H-6N may have been the subject of speculation in August 2017, when an image of an unidentified H-6 variant appeared on Chinese social media.
The CH-AS-X-13, meanwhile, is a two-stage, solid-fuel ballistic missile with a 3,000 kilometer range; it is likely a variant of the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile. The missile may use lighter weight composite materials in its airframe to reduce the necessary carry weight for the bomber.
The H6X1/H-6N is assessed to have a combat radius of nearly 6,000 kilometers — a significant improvement from older H-6 variants. As a system for nuclear delivery, the CH-AS-X-13 on the H6X1/H-6N, assuming a launch from the edge of the bomber’s combat radius, will be capable of threatening targets in the contiguous United States, Hawaii, and Alaska.
According to a source who spoke with The Diplomat, the U.S. intelligence community assesses that the CH-AS-X-13 will be ready for deployment by 2025.
This is in line with a September 2016 announcement by People’s Liberation Army Air Force General Ma Xiaotan, referenced in the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2017 report on Chinese military power, that China would develop a new generation of long-range strategic bombers to be deployed around the mid-2020s.
Aside from the H6X1/H-6N, China has developed the H-6 into a range of support and attack roles. The H-6K, for instance, is capable of delivering standoff range CJ-20 land-attack cruise missiles with precision guidance. These bombers have conducted missions across the so-called First Island Chain, into the western Pacific.
Additionally, the People’s Liberation Army Navy operates the H-6G, which is designed for anti-ship and maritime support missions.
In recent years, senior U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged the development of a nuclear-capable ALBM in China.
On March 6, 2018, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, in discussing the development of new Chinese long-range, precision-strike systems, said that “These capabilities are being augmented with two new air-launched ballistic missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload.”
In May 2017, Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the former director of the DIA, for the first time, referenced “two, new air-launched ballistic missiles, one of which may include a nuclear payload.”
It’s unclear if the conventional ALBM referenced in these DIA threat assessments is an alternate warhead configuration for the nuclear-capable system. A conventional variant of the CH-AS-X-13 could perform a long-range anti-ship role.
ALBMs are carried horizontally by aircraft and dropped prior to their engines igniting. Following ignition, the missile reorients toward a regular ballistic trajectory like any other ballistic missile.
Why an Air-Launched Ballistic Missile?
Air-launched ballistic missiles are an unusual configuration for ballistic missiles. No country has inducted and deployed an ALBM as part of its strategic forces; the closest would have been the United States, which developed the GAM-87 Skybolt in the 1950s.
The Skybolt program, which also involved the participation of the United Kingdom, was ultimately cancelled in favor of the submarine-based Polaris system. U.S. President John F. Kennedy cancelled the program in the final weeks of 1962, weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The United States conducted subsequent experimentation with ALBMs, including a 1974 flight-test of a Minuteman-I intercontinental-range ballistic missile off a C-5A Galaxy strategic airlifter. Today, the United States uses ALBMs dropped from C-17 Globemasters as target missiles for its tests of missile defense systems.
The Soviet Union, too, is thought to have briefly experimented with modifying its Tu-160 strategic bomber to carry a nuclear-capable ALBM, but the project foundered in the early 1980s and never proceeded to flight-testing.
Until the advent of reliable submarine-launched ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines, ALBMs offered an attractive means to improve the survivability of land-based nuclear forces in silos.
As a crisis would escalate, countries could direct their strategic bomber fleets, equipped with ALBMs, to high alert status. Once an ALBM-equipped bomber had taken off — presumably after warning of an incoming launch or the start of an attack — national leadership could be assured of some retaliatory capability.
Given the standoff ranges available to ALBMs, bombers carrying these weapons do not necessarily need to penetrate hostile airspace to be effective.
For China, the pursuit of an ALBM capability may suggest real concern about the survivability of its existing nuclear forces. With an estimated 270 nuclear warheads, China is not a near-peer nuclear adversary of the United States and has a lean force posture built around a longstanding pledge of no first use.
Operational training for the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (formerly the Second Artillery Corps) has long simulated retaliatory launch operations after the country has already absorbed a nuclear strike — presumably against known basing sites for its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, both in silos and on road-mobile launchers.
In this context, China’s pursuit of an ALBM capability might not be so surprising. Assuming a sufficiently distributed bomber force, the long-range H6X1/H-6N and CH-AS-X-13 could lend important retaliatory flexibility to Chinese nuclear forces.
Moreover, with Chinese concern growing about U.S. missile defenses, a long-range strategic bomber carrying an ALBM could present U.S. homeland missile defense systems with challenging or impossible intercept geometries. (China’s deployed nuclear ballistic missile submarines also have this advantage.)
Finally, in a conventional conflict with the United States, China may plan on its conventional anti-access/area denial capabilities securing air corridors for its bombers to access airspace far into the western Pacific. The ALBM, given its relatively short assessed range of 3,000 kilometers, may ultimately find more use as a theater ballistic missile.
U.S. and allied fighters in Northeast Asia and surface ships in the Pacific could deny the H6X1 the necessary access to make the ALBM useful as a weapon for strategic nuclear retaliation.
Beijing’s growing suite of anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, hypersonic boost-glide warheads, and conventional short-to-intermediate-range systems, however, could neutralize U.S. air defenses and airfields in the East Asian theater.
Given the lack of any authoritative Chinese statements on the burgeoning ALBM program and the lack of an imminent date for deployment, it’s possible too that the program is merely experimental and serves as a technology demonstrator for now.
Whatever the rationale for developing an ALBM, China isn’t the only country bringing back this ballistic missile launch configuration. At his Federal Assembly address on March 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced the Kinzhal, which appears to be an air-launched variant of the short-range Iskander-M ballistic missile. The nuclear-capable Kinzhal is has been shown to be capable of launch from a MiG-31.
Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat, where he covers security, politics, and economics in the Asia-Pacific region. He is additionally an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. He tweets at @nktpnd.