Footage posted on Chinese social media site Sina Weibo earlier this week shows another Xian H-6N bomber with one of the huge missiles it was specially designed to carry.
According to The Drive’s The War Zone, the missile is roughly 40 feet long, or one-third the length of the 737-sized aircraft, and tapers at the front in a way uncommon for typical ballistic missiles. The outlet concluded the missile is most likely a Dongfeng-17, one of the hypersonic glide vehicles unveiled at the 70th National Day parade in Beijing last year. At 36 feet long, the missile roughly fits the size and profile of that seen in the video.
The missile is assumed to be of the same type seen in a previous video that appeared on Weibo last month. However, Beijing is believed to be working on a number of hypersonic weapon designs as well as developing conventional air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBMs), and the intelligence made public about them has been vague and possibly overlapping.
However, after the first video emerged and analysts began speculating on what it was, two People’s Liberation Army insiders told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) the missile was of a new type: a hypersonic variant of the Changjian series of cruise missiles. If that’s the case, it’s a truly huge cruise missile: Russia’s Kinzhal supersonic/hypersonic cruise missile is just 26 feet long, according to military observers.
In May, the SCMP reported the Institute of Mechanics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences had tested a scramjet missile. Perfecting a scramjet, which is like a regular jet engine but optimized to work at much, much faster speeds, would greatly aid development of a hypersonic cruise missile, which must push itself all the way to its target at speeds conventional rockets only reach for a few minutes.
By comparison, hypersonic glide vehicles like the Dongfeng-17 and Russia’s Avantgard are boosted by conventional ballistic missiles - which always reach hypersonic speeds - and use that tremendous speed to maneuver the smaller glide vehicle through the atmosphere during a second, unpowered stage of their flight.
The status of the weapon seen in the video is totally unknown, so it’s possible the filmed flights are part of further tests of the scramjet missile. No photos of the Chinese scramjet have become public, but a look at the profiles of the Boeing X-51A Waverider and China’s own Jiageng hypersonic aircraft tested by Xiamen University students in the Gobi Desert in April 2019 shows they could pass for the weapon in the video as well.
The final possibility is that the missile is a conventional ALBM. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force has been working on several adaptations of surface-launched ballistic missiles for use on the new H-6N, including the Dongfeng-21, which has been dubbed a “carrier-killer” threat to US fleets.