Does China really have a nuclear-capable bomber?
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2016
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — If America straps a warhead to a Chevy Silverado, does it own a nuclear-capable truck?
Technically yes, though the United States arguably has far more efficient ways of maintaining its nuclear deterrent.
The same might be said for the “nuclear-capable” Chinese H-6K bombers that flew around Taiwan and over disputed areas within the South China Sea, according to some analysts.
Fox News first reported the flights earlier this month, citing unidentified U.S. officials in each case.
Many security experts interpreted the flights as a Chinese show of strength in light of President–elect Donald Trump’s overtures to Taiwan.
However, the H-6K’s description as a nuclear weapons carrier touched off a debate over the reports Tuesday.
“No, China’s H-6 bomber is not nuclear-capable,” wrote Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., on Twitter.
Lewis cited a report that China retrofitted an H-6 variant in 1965 to deliver an atomic bomb but said the program never got beyond the test phase.
He then pointed to the 2016 China Military Power Report prepared by the Pentagon for Congress. The report cites Chinese publications and officials talking of China’s intentions to build a long-range “strategic” bomber, as well as a strategic deterrence mission reportedly assigned to China’s air force in 2012.
But for now, the report concluded that China doesn’t have a nuclear-capable bomber.
“These media reports and Chinse (sic) writings suggest China might eventually develop a nuclear bomber capability,” the report stated.
China could possibly have developed a nuclear bomber capability after the Pentagon report’s release. However, the report makes no mention of any imminent capability, as it does in other areas where China is advancing its weapons development.
The H-6K is a newer variant of the Cold War-era H-6 bomber. It can complete longer-range missions and carry up to six land-attack cruise missiles, or LACMs, according to a Congressional Research Service report in March.
Some responding to Lewis’ tweet argued that air-launched cruise missiles can be adapted to carry nuclear warheads, which would make the bomber nuclear-capable.
However, there is no publicly known instance of China currently doing that.
The CRS report’s section on China’s nuclear capabilities talks extensively about China’s land-based ballistic missile stockpile, as well as its emerging submarine-launched capability.
There is no mention of the H-6K or any other bomber as nuclear capable by CRS.
Even conventionally armed, the H-6K does concern the military. The Pentagon report to Congress described China’s long-range missile development as “extraordinarily rapid.”
The Pentagon views the U.S. territory of Guam as a potential H-6K target in its myriad war scenarios and notes that China launched H-6K flights into the Western Pacific for the first time in 2015.
“If [China] is sending any signal, it is one of conventional readiness, the ability to conduct LACM strikes,” Lewis said. “We are interpreting the signal as a nuclear threat. That reinforces a series of concerns I have about signaling and misperception.”