Meet the Nanchang Q-5: China's Nuclear Bomber

Michael Peck

Key point: The Q-5 keeps being upgraded to this day.

Had China gone to war with America or the Soviet Union during the Cold War and after, one of its premier weapons—and one that would have dropped nuclear weapons—would have been the Nanchang Q-5 bomber.

Like most Communist bloc aircraft, its NATO code name was unflattering (“Fantan”). Its forebears were also less than auspicious: the Q-5 and its cousin, the J-6 fighter, were based on the Soviet MiG-19 (NATO code name “Farmer”), whose intensive maintenance requirements and difficult handling characteristics proved unpopular with the Soviets and many of their allies, such as North Vietnam. But strangely, China proved quite fond of the MiG-19.

Which is why the Chinese air force turned to it when it needed a new ground attack aircraft. The Q-5 (and the export version, the A-5) was born in 1955, after Communist China's bloody seizure of Yijangshan Island from Taiwan, where the Communists were able to enjoy air support for once from Soviet-made Il-10 propeller-driven attack aircraft, according to authors Yefim Gordon and Dimitry Komissarov in “Chinese Aircraft: China's Aviation Industry since 1951.” Given that most advanced military powers had transitioned from props to jets by the mid-1950s, it is no surprise that by 1958, the People's Liberation Army Air Force wanted a supersonic strike jet.

“The engineers at Nanchang believed the future aircraft's role would be CAS (close air support),” write Gordon and Komissarov. “To this end, the fighter-bomber needed good low-altitude performance and plenty of firepower, as well as some potential as a dogfighter for self-defense, good field performance and adequate range and endurance.”

From 1958 to 1962, China was convulsed by the Great Leap Forward, which set Chinese aircraft design back. The upheaval “forced many of the younger designers, some with extraordinary zeal, but lacking knowledge in aircraft design, to disobey physical laws and the necessary standards in production, testing and quality management,” writes Andreas Rupprecht in “Dragon’s Wings: Chinese Fighter and Bomber Aircraft Development.” Nonetheless, the resulting twin-engined design was bigger and heavier than the J-6 fighter, but nearly as fast at low altitude. In fact, the NATO code name “Fantan” would normally have been assigned to a Communist fighter, which Western analysts initially assumed the Q-5 was.

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