Into the 1960s, communist China held a close working military and political relationship with the Soviet Union. As such, there passed technologies to the flourishing ranks of China which benefitted from Soviet-designed and developed weapons of all types. it was this relationship that set the stage for the well-established and growing Chinese military we witness today. One of the gifted technological products became the Tupolev Tu-16 series strategic bomber - recognized by NATO as the "Badger". The Tu-16 was introduced with Soviet air power in 1954 and operated until 1993 before being retired. Key operators of the type went on to include Egypt, Indonesia and Iraq with some 1,500 produced in all. The Chinese were, in turn, recipients of their first Tu-16 airframe in 1958. The first Chinese Air Force Tu-16 flew as the "H-6" the following year.
Chinese involvement with theTu-16 line went a step further after an agreement was reached between the two regional powers to locally-produce the Tu-16 across Chinese factory lines as the "H-6" with the Xi'an Aircraft Industrial Corporation heading the endeavor. Local production of Tu-16s then began in 1968. While sources vary, at least 160 examples were produced locally with as many as 180 total units also being suspected. Production spanned into the 1990s to which its use has since been largely outclassed by emerging rocket and missile technologies elsewhere. Regardless, the People's Liberation Army Air Force currently manages a healthy stock of some 120 H-6 bombers as of this writing (2013). Egypt and Iraq became the only foreign operators of the H-6 and these have all been either retired (Egypt, 2000) or destroyed (Iraq, in the 1991 Persian Gulf War). China fields the H-6 in both its air force (approx. 80 units) and navy (approx. 30 units) inventories.
At its core, the H-6 was classified as a strategic bomber, initially intended to serve as a nuclear bomb deterrent which then gave way to a more conventional bombing role due to advancements in other technologies - particularly of the ballistic missile launched from land or by submarine. Ballistic missiles, therefore, completely removed the need for aircraft in the same nuclear delivery role. The strategic bomber role had been in play since the days of World War 1 and required an aircraft design with strong inherent endurance principles capable of hauling thousands of pounds of ordnance over enemy territory, targeting specific enemy positions such as factories. Chinese H-6 bombers were eventually upgraded to support guided missile ordnance to further extend their battlefield usefulness for decades.
Outwardly, there is very little unique about the H-6 for it remains embedded in the classic Cold War Soviet design philosophy incorporating a smooth cylindrical fuselage with wide-spanning swept-back wings all finished in a silver coating. The engines are nestled within the wing roots and aspirated by oblong air intakes well-aft of the cockpit flight deck and exhausting just aft of amidships before the tail section. The undercarriage is completely retractable and consists of a two-wheeled nose leg and four-wheeled main legs, the latter retracting into streamlined pods at the trailing edge of each wing assembly. The empennage is conventional with a single clipped vertical tail fin and swept-back horizontal planes as expected. The H-6 features a stepped cockpit with noticeably heavy framing consistent with Cold War designs. Some H-6 models also showcased a heavily glazed nose section. A windowed tail position can field a trailing cannon for engaging incoming intercepting enemy aircraft at the aircraft's vulnerable "six". Additionally, the H-6 can be outfitted with 2 x 23mm Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23 series cannons in a remote-controlled dorsal turret to which this arrangement can be further supplemented by a 2 x 23mm cannon system in a remote-controlled ventral emplacement. A single 23mm cannon can also be installed in the nose assembly as required.
The initial Chinese H-6 operational mark was designated simply as "H-6". These were conventional bombers copied directly from their Soviet Tu-16 counterparts with little added flair. Examples were powered by a pair of in-house Xian WP8 series turbojet engines delivering 20,900lbs of thrust each. This allowed for a maximum speed of 656 miles per hour with a cruise speed nearing 480mph. Range was approximately 3,700 miles with a combat radius of 1,100 miles being listed. The airframe could manage a service ceiling of 42,000 feet. Internal ordnance could total up to 20,000lbs of conventional drop ordnance.
The next notable production H-6 mark became the H-6A which added the all-important nuclear carry-and-release capability, making China a major player in the Asia-Pacific region. The H-6B became a modified reconnaissance platform based on the conventional bomber design though outfitted with specialized equipment as expected for the role. The H-6C basic bomber variant incorporated an improved countermeasures facility while the H-6D brought about support for the C-601 anti-ship missile (later C-301 and then the C-101) for maritime patrolling and this was further exported as the B-6D. The H-6E was a modernized nuclear bomber type appearing in the 1980s while upgraded H-6A and H-6C airframes fell under the newer and modernized (with GPS, Doppler navigation, inertial navigation) H-6F designation. The H-6G was a weaponless data relay platform used in conjunction with launched cruise missiles and appeared in the 1990s. The H-6H was given two hardpoints for supporting the launching of cruise missiles and appeared in the same decade as the H-6G models. The H-6M was an advanced four-hardpoint cruise-missile-launching platform with improved terrain-following radar facilities and is currently in play as of this writing (2013). The HD-6 was a dedicated Electronic Warfare Aircraft (EWA) platform outfitted with various tracking and sensory suites, advanced Electronic CounterMeasures (ECM) and identified by its solid nose assembly. The most modern H-6 variant is the H-6K complete with revised air intakes, new cockpit, solid radar-housing nose and uprated Soloviev D-30Kp series low-bypass turbofan engines - the same Soviet-Russian designs fitted to the Ilyushin IL-62M/IL-76 and Tupolev Tu-154M transports.
Like many other strategic bombers having outlived their bombing usefulness, the H-6 went on to enjoy something of an extended service life as aerial refueling tanker aircraft (similar to the post-bombing role inherited by the British Vickers Valiant nuclear bomber for the RAF). The initial models were designated as "HY-6" with conveniently retained their full combat capabilities. This then resulted in the streamlined HY-6U series following and the solid-nosed HY-6D production mark (this born from the H-6D bomber mark). Another tanker variant became the HY-6DU series which entered service with the Chinese Air Force and was based on the refined HY-6D variant.
As it stands, the Xian H-6 force is still an active part of Chinese military operations and would be called upon in full strength in the event of all-out war with its neighbors or the West. While largely outmoded by modern technology and holding origins in a 1950s directive, the H-6 family of aircraft are available to the Chinese military in useful numbers to provide a decent stopgap threat to advancing land targets and maritime shipping in the theater. Modifications to the base H-6 system have only enhanced the original aircraft's offering and allowed for the H-6 to remain a viable battlefield tool in 2013. However, there is no denying that this family of aircraft has lived beyond its expected usefulness and retains many design limitations when compared to modern offerings. It offers little stealthy features and its performance is regarded as only adequate.