‘Threat to US Navy’: PLAAF fires air-launched ballistic missile

Videos circulating on social media show a PLAAF H-6K bomber releasing an air-launched ballistic missile [ALBM], possibly a KD-21 or YJ-21, in what can only be described as an unprecedented event. The H-6K bombers, a modernized version of the H-6, play a strategic role in a potential attack on Taiwan by delivering long-range strikes on various targets, in coordination with naval operations and other air tactics. 

'Threat to US Navy': PLAAF fires air-launched ballistic missile
Video screenshot

The video captures the moment an H-6 bomber releases one of its elusive ballistic missiles, widely rumored to be ship-destroying weapons. From the pilot’s seat, you can observe the missile unfolding from the stand beneath the bomber’s port wing. There is also additional coverage of the H-6 crew preparing for a mission, captured alongside the subsequent bomber launch. 

Although available information on the missile launch is limited, it’s plausible that the missile displayed is the same one showcased on the public exhibition stage at Airshow China, held in Zhuhai in November 2022. Attached to the center pylons, these missiles were believed to be hypersonic weapons by several missile specialists. 

Dual functionality

The weapon has the marking “2PZD-21” conspicuously painted on it. There is rife speculation that the missile might be referred to as KD-21 or YJ-21. The KD-21 is suspected to be a variant designed for land-attacks, while the YJ-21 might serve as an anti-ship missile. Despite most Chinese military experts asserting dual-functionality for this weapon, substantiation remains elusive due to Beijing’s reticence about specific details. 

Offering his expert insight, Song Zhongping, a seasoned military specialist and televised pundit from China, shared with Global Times the possibility of the weapon’s capability to hit both stationary targets and slow-moving ones like aircraft carriers. 

Furthermore, when the weapon was first revealed to the world in November, figures from China’s propaganda bureau labeled it as an anti-ship missile. Thus, since the weapon’s initial exposure, speculation abounds about its potential as an anti-ship weapon capable enough to wreak havoc on high-value assets such as aircraft carriers.

'Threat to US Navy': PLAAF fires air-launched ballistic missile
Photo credit: Twitter

Know data

An anonymous defense expert closely observing the PLA, stated that the recent imagery showcasing the missile launch doesn’t provide any significant new insights. “The latest pictures or videos from Zhuhai 2022 do not alter our understanding in any profound way. It’s unclear whether the missile is for land attack only, or if it can also target ships. Either scenario is quite likely,” they explain.  

When questioned about the potential threat this new missile could pose to the United States, the analyst responded, “There’s nothing earth-shattering about the new missile. Both sides are constantly unveiling new munitions; it’s business as usual.”  

Adding to this analysis, a military specialist based in the Philippines, concurred in his comments: “We’ve seen a resurgence of interest in air-launched ballistic missiles [ALBMs] with several new varieties surfacing in the late 2010s. However, let’s not forget, ALBMs have been around since the 1950s, albeit in different roles. The PLAAF boasts an extensive cache of munitions, and they continue to expand.

Greater distances

It’s noteworthy that a ballistic missile launched from the air can travel greater distances compared to land-based deployments. An aircraft could potentially release the ALBM closer to enemy territories or military installations, providing a strategic advantage in dodging hostile radars.  

The missile’s potential capacity to achieve hypersonic terminal velocity, a common trait among ballistic missiles, suggests that they will likely dive steeply toward their intended target. Combined with its dynamic maneuvering during the terminal attack phase, and potential anti-ship capabilities, the missile poses a significant challenge to ground-based air defenses. 

'Threat to US Navy': PLAAF fires air-launched ballistic missile
Photo credit: Twitter

The value of these long-distance projectiles lies in their extraordinary standoff ranges. They hold tremendous potential against stationary targets, from large battleships to fortified island entities.

In 2022, an expert on Chinese military aviation based in Germany analyzed the similarities between these missiles and the high-altitude, ballistic anti-ship missile—the CM-401.  

This assertion held significance as the CM-401 is renowned for its ability to be launched from various platforms and execute full-range hypersonic maneuvers. Observations suggested a possibility that the recently unveiled ALBM could be an air-launched version of the CM-401, given their striking similarities. 

CM-401

The CM-401, with a maximum diameter of approximately 2.8 feet, can be compared in size to the Russian ground-integrated Iskander ballistic missile, which has been modified for air launch as the Kinzhal aero-launched ballistic missile. In fact, several interpretations have drawn parallels between the Chinese ALBM and the Kinzhal missiles.

However, there are observable alterations in the missile’s design. For instance, in comparison to the CM-401, the frontal design of the missile seems to embody a higher finesse ratio – it’s sleeker and sharper, indicating a potential overhaul of the guidance system. 

Irrespective of its similarity with the Kinzhal, the disclosure of the H-6K video occurred during a crucial juncture when Russia had been incessantly using air-launched ballistic missiles to inflict significant damage on Ukrainian cities. 

These recent advancements underscore Beijing’s intensified efforts to fortify its air-launched anti-ship capabilities, to counter possible interference from the US Navy and its Supercarriers in a conflict concerning Taiwan.

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