China's new H-6N strategic bomber could reach a maximum strike range of 6,000km (3,728 miles), military sources said.
The H-6 " which is based on the Russian cold war era Tupolev 16 (known to Nato as the Badger) that went into service in 1954 " has been the mainstay of China's bomber force since the 1970s.
The H-6K have played a key role in Beijing's "island encirclement" drills over the self-ruled Taiwan since early 2018. The military exercises were designed by Beijing to send a warning to the island's independence-leaning government.
The latest variant of the plane was designed to carry CJ-100 supersonic cruise missiles or the WZ-8 supersonic stealth spy drone, which were seen by the public for the first time at China's National Day parade last month, a source close to the People's Liberation Army Air Force said last week.
"The semi-recessed area under the fuselage of the H-6N is designed to carry either the WZ-8 or the CJ-100," said the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of defence matters.
The CJ-100 " also known as DF-100 " is the PLA's third-generation ground-attack cruise missile. Its predecessor, the subsonic CJ-10, was carried by the H-6K variant of the bomber and had a range of more than 1,500km. As the CJ-100 is significantly larger than the CJ-10, some analysts expected its range to be as much as 2,000km.
Aerial refuelling could expand the H-6N's operational range by 500km over the H-6K to more than 4,000km. So, in theory, the CJ-100 could take the H-6N's strike range to about 6,000km, the source said.
But despite the increased range, the bomber itself would not be sufficient to support potential attacks on nearby countries that have territorial disputes with Beijing, according to a second military source.
"The new bomber is still unable to break the first island chain because it is not a stealth bomber and is easier to detect by an opponent's radar systems," the source said, referring to an area composed of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines that China believes it must secure in the event of conflict.
"Compared with the advanced American bombers like the B-1B, the B2 and the B-21 stealth bombers that are equipped with rotary launchers, as well as the Russian Tu-160 supersonic bomber, China has a long way to go to catch up, because the PLA just owns the H-6K and H-6N, which were modified from the Soviet-era," the source said.
In September, the PLA Rocket Force released a National Day video but later made an unexplained two-second edit that cut footage of a missile of an unreported type taking off from a mobile launcher.
This was identified as the CJ-100 by Naval & Merchant Ships, a military magazine published by the China Institute of Marine Technology and Economy think tank. On October 1, the CJ-100s were paraded inside canisters and their true shape could not be seen.
In the unedited rocket force video, the missile appeared to have two stages that included a separate rocket booster attached to the bottom. The booster was about 3.3 meters (10.8 feet) long by 1 meter in diameter, while the main body of the missile was 6.6 meters long and about 50cm in diameter.
As the Chinese equivalent of the US' "B" variant long-range anti-ship missile, the CJ-100 has a ceiling of 24,000 meters (79,000 feet), a cruising of speed Mach 4 and a top speed of Mach 4.5, the Naval & Merchant Ships article said.
Since China lags behind its competitors in scramjet engine development, the CJ-100 uses less powerful ramjet engines with rocket boosters and an aerodynamic air inlet designed to improve its speed and lower its cost.
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