Thursday, March 09, 2017

Y-20 Aircraft Will Transform China’s Strategic Combat Capability

Executive Summary
China’s PLA Air Force inducted its first two Y-20 strategic heavy-airlift transport aircraft (out of probable 400 more) in July 2016 to provide a considerable boost to China’s expeditionary and long-range power-projection capability.

Y-20-1 in PLAAF Service (Pic-


On 6 July 2016, the Chinese Air Force inducted its first two Y-20 transport aircraft into the active service at Chengdu-Qionglai Air Base. Made by the Xi’an Aircraft Corporation, Y-20 is the largest transport aircraft built in China. It is a four-engine, high tail cargo aircraft with maximum take-off weight of 220 tons and can carry 66 tons of payload to about 4500 km. This all-weather aircraft can take off from short runways and can be deployed to transport heavy equipment and troops during military assault, peacekeeping and humanitarian assault/disaster-relief missions. 

Y-20 Design Inspirations (Pic -
Yunshuji-20 or Y-20 (nickname ‘Kunpeng’) is a long range heavy transport aircraft which China has been developing indigenously. The idea to develop a heavy strategic transport aircraft was considered during the 10th Party Congress of China in 2004, when the PLA decided to transform its air force into a ‘Strategic Air Force’. Therefore, the need for air superiority and long range strike capability, beyond 100 miles, required the development of a suitable airlift aircraft. Consequently, China started the Y-20 development programme in 2005, which evolved into an urgent requirement after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. The earthquake and China’s lack of adequate airlift capability turned into a major embarrassment for the Chinese regime. During the post-earthquake relief programme, American C-17 aircraft and Russian IL-76 aircraft transported hundreds of tons of relief material into Sichuan earthquake zone while Chinese Air Force lacked suitable airlift aircraft as well as adequate number of trained pilots to fly into the disaster-struck region. In the aftermath, the Y-20 development program received phenomenal support from the Chinese government. Finally, the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation (an AVIC subsidiary) produced the first prototype aircraft by December 2012 which flew in 2013. The prototype was a result of indigenous technological development, coupled with substantial external design help from Ukraine

Recent Developments 

Rep Image - Future Y-20 Tanker
At the 2016 induction ceremony, the PLA Air Force Spokesperson Shen Jinke marked the induction as a crucial step for improving China’s strategic power projection capability. It is here that this aircraft’s unique role in the PLA’s modernisation programme becomes crucial. The aircraft can not only perform suitably as a heavy airlifter but it can eventually be configured to perform as an airborne-early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C), aerial-refueller, electronic warfare aircraft, drone mothership and other force-multiplier missions. These are missions where Chinese capability is severely limited due to the lack of a large transport aircraft. 

Y-20 Glass Cockpit (pic-Focus)
The PLA Air Force has less than two dozen Russian IL-76/78 in its inventory at present. A larger order to induct 30 additional IL-76 and 8 IL-78 aircraft was cancelled in 2008 due to the failure of price renegotiation between Russia and China. After the 2008 earthquake, however, China decided to procure ten used IL-76 aircraft from Russia which was delivered starting 2013. Even so, these two dozen heavy airlifters are inadequate for transporting requirements of a two million strong PLA. In addition, due to the western embargo, China is unable to purchase an airlifter which is equivalent to American C-17 or C-5 aircraft. 

Y-20 FLIR (Pic -
Y-20 HUD (Pic- CCTV-4)
Thus, China had no other option but to develop an indigenous aircraft for the purpose. The Y-20 aircraft uses fairly modern technologies in terms of ‘supercritical aerofoils, integrated avionics, glass cockpit, head-up display, FLIR and composite materials in the fuselage’. Although, Y-20 has been using Russian D-30KP2 engines so far, a drive to develop Chinese aviation engine for the aircraft, named WS-20, is in the process. The Y-20’s 66-ton payload capability will provide China a capability to move majority of its combat and support platforms to the battlefield, including its heaviest tank, the 58-ton Type-99A2. The aircraft can haul lighter loads such as paratroopers to more than 10,000km, while at 40-ton payload, it can reach 7,800 km. Additionally, the aircraft is capable to take-off from short runways and dirt-strips which opens access to various remote battlefields. Additionally, Chinese scientists are studying possibilities to launch 200-kilogram satellites in low earth orbit from this aircraft. 

ShenLong under H6(Pic - Tiexue.Net)
Y-20 Cargo Hold (Pic- Focus)

Chinese experts expected in 2007 that the development phase of Y-20 aircraft will conclude in about 8-10 years and large scale deliveries would begin in 2017. The development program has so far maintained the schedule. Chinese experts expect that the PLA requires anywhere from 400 to 100o Y-20 aircraft for long range power projection and strategic airlift. However, the final production of Y-20 aircraft may remain in single digits for a foreseeable future. China has embarked on the development of four transport aircraft simultaneously, namely, Y-20, Comac C919, ARJ-21 and Y-9 aircraft. A large number of skilled personnel are required to run these simultaneous manufacturing programs, which is not available in China. It is possible that China would prioritize one or two of these aircraft, however that would depend upon the demand and possibility of sale of civilian transport aircraft in the market. 


Y-20 Cargo Hold (Pic - Focus)
The induction of Y-20 transport aircraft is a significant event for China’s logistics support capability. From tactical, China is embarking towards the build-up of a global combat logistics capability. The induction of hundreds of these aircraft into the PLA Air Force will provide it a strategic support capability in terms of air transport, air-refueling, electronic warfare and intelligence support. This aircraft will become crucial in sustainment flying missions at Djibouti, Gwadar and others in future. China can further export Y-20 aircraft to friendly nations such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and many other countries in Asia and Africa. If Y-20 can be built at cheaper prices than Russian IL-476, then China can sell the aircraft to many other countries. In sum, Y-20’s induction in the PLA Air Force will increase the range of its strike aircraft and extend China’s reach into global battlefields.

Y-20 Induction Ceremony (Pic

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