TechChina tests new air-launched missile, boosts Pacific reach

China tests new air‑launched missile, boosts Pacific reach

Xi'an H-6 airplane
Xi'an H-6 airplane
Images source: © Lic. CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons, kevinmcgill | Kevin A. McGill

6:49 PM EDT, May 4, 2024

In a recent development from China, the ballistic missile CM-401 underwent a novel test, marking a significant shift in its launch mechanism. Unlike traditional ground launches, this missile was launched from beneath the fuselage of the strategic bomber H-6K. This approach presents China with a strategic advantage in potential Pacific conflicts.

The CM-401 missile is a descendant of the B-611 missile family, a project that originated in China during the 1990s. The B-611 was unveiled in 2004, paving the way for developing numerous solid-fuel ballistic missile variants with ranges from 56 to 249 miles.

According to its developers, the CM-401 was initially designed as a ground-launched anti-ship missile. It boasts hypersonic velocities and can cover a distance of approximately 174 miles. In the final phase of its trajectory, it employs an onboard radar for precise targeting and impact.

The recent testing underscores the missile’s adaptability, demonstrating its capability as an aerial weapon.

A Chinese strategy to enhance missile range

The rationale behind China’s experiment involves leveraging a ground-to-ground missile as an airborne munition, a concept that Russian innovations might have inspired with the Ch-47M2 Kindzhal missiles, which are deployed from the modified MiG-31K interceptor aircraft.

In contrast, China selected the H-6K, a variant of the Xi'an H-6—a model derived from the 1950s Russian Tu-16 aircraft—as the launch platform. This choice is intriguing; the H-6K, with its large, slower profile, is more vulnerable to detection and attack.
H-6K airplane
H-6K airplane© Alert5, Lic. CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Yet, this strategy likely significantly enhances the missile's operational range. While the CM-401's ground-based launch range is estimated at 174 miles, launching from the H-6K could potentially extend its striking distance to over 1,243 miles, considering the aircraft's operational radius of roughly 1,118 miles.

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