Monday, 1 August 2016

Xian Y-20 : China's Indigenous Military Transport ... With Old Russian Engines?! 中国西飞 运-20 国产战略运输机扶摇万里得用进口俄制发动机?!

The Xian Y-20 Strategic Transport of the PLAAF.
Image shows prototype number 3.
Source : Chinese Internet

News of China's new strategic transport aircraft the Y-20 officially entering service with the People's liberation Army Air Force was splashed across various news media earlier last month. The Chinese are immensely proud of this indigenously designed and built aircraft, their largest and heaviest so far, as in terms of lift capacity, only Ukraine, Russia and America had previously constructed anything bigger. While basking in their self-congratulatory bliss, these air-heads often seize upon the chance to belittle the Japanese effort in their separate quest to build a long range medium transport, the Kawasaki C-2. But really, how great is this aircraft and is the Chinese national pride misdirected? Read on to find out more.

Chinese Aircraft Normenclature

Indigenously built Chinese aircraft generally have an official designation combining one ( sometimes two or more ) Chinese character(s) describing the function of the aircraft followed by a dash and a numerical figure. For example, in China bombers are known as Hong Zha Ji  ( 轰炸机 ). The Chinese character 轰 or 轰炸 means to bomb or the act of bombing and a bomber therefore will be assigned the 轰 designation, such as the Tu-16 derived 轰-6 or Hong-6 in its Anglicized form, which is then abbreviated to become the H-6.

Similarly, transport aircrafts are known as Yun Shu Ji  ( 运输机 ) and indigenously constructed transport aircrafts have designations like the 运-8 ( Yun-8, Y-8 ), or in our particular case, the 运-20 ( Yun-20, Y-20 ).

Helicopters are known as Zhi Sheng Ji ( 直升机 ), so they all have the 直 or Zhi designation, like the AS365 Dauphin derived Z-9.

Examples with two function indicating characters include the Shenyang Jian Hong-8 ( 歼轰-8 ), the JH-8 fighter bomber and the H-6 bomber derived HU-6 aerial tanker Hong You-6 ( 轰油-6 ). 油 means oil or fuel.

Imported aircrafts generally retain their original foreign designations, for instance, the Sukhoi Su-27 fighter is simply known as the 苏-27 which is phonetically Su-27 ( 苏 is pronounced Su in Chinese ).

The Xian Y-20

Xi what? Definitely not as famous as Airbus, Boeing or Sukhoi, the Y-20 is the product of the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation ( 西安飞机工业 Xian Fei Ji Gong Ye ) which is sometimes also known as the Xian Aircraft Company ( XAC ) based in China's north-western Shanxi Province ( 陕西省 ). It is frequently abbreviated as Xifei ( 西飞 ).

XAC was set up in 1958 and over the years had specialized in the development and production of medium and large aircrafts for China. Previous products included the Tupolev Tu-16 derived H-6 bomber, the Y-7 transport and the JH-7 fighter bomber.

Their most recent venture is the strategic transport the Yun-20 ( Y-20 ), incidentally also the biggest aircraft that China had developed so far. It is officially named the Kunpeng ( 鲲鹏 ), which is an ancient Chinese mythical creature of humongous proportions which can transform itself between the form of a fish or a bird. How big is big? Well legend had it that just the back of this bird alone is supposed to stretch for a few thousand Chinese li ( 1 li = 500 meters ) and the Kunpeng is figuratively able to fly ten thousand li in a day, meaning an unimaginable distance. The Chinese obviously had very high expectations for their new transport. For more on the Kunpeng mythology, see the footnote.

Unofficially, the Y-20 is called the Pangniu ( 胖妞 ) which means fat girl, due to the chubby appearance of its fuselage. A rather stupid nickname to have for a military aircraft, but seemingly very widely accepted, adopted and affectionately used in the Chinese mass media.

The Chubby Girl is not just fat. It is suffering from
Grade III Obesity. Source : Chinese Internet

No matter how you view it, this aircraft is just
pathologically fat. Source : Chinese Internet

Y-20 Technical Specfications

Type : Military Strategic Transport

Crew : 3 ( including 1 loadmaster )

Length : 47m

Wingspan : 45m

Height : 15m

Empty Weight : 100000kg

Maximum Take-off Weight : 220000kg

Payload : 66000kg

Cargo Hold : 20 x 4.5 x 4m

Engines : 4 x Soloviev D-30KP-2 Low Bypass Turbofans
                4 x WS-20 High Bypass Turbofans in the future

Maximum Speed : Mach 0.75 ( 891km/h or 495knots )

Maximum Altitude   : 13000m

Range       : 4500km with full load of 66tons
                   7800km with 40tons
                   in excess of 10000km transporting personnel   

Minimum Take Off Distance : 600 - 700m

Development History

As history had repeatedly shown us, it is logistics that frequently made the difference between winning and losing a war. In the past two decades or so, the Chinese Air Force, more accurately known as the People's Liberation Army Air Force ( PLAAF ), and it naval counterpart the People's Liberation Army Navy Air Force ( PLANAF ), had undergone rapid modernization and had transformed themselves from also ran organizations into some very capable fighting forces. However, their efforts were mainly concentrated in building up the quantity and quality of their frontline combat aircrafts and in doing so had somewhat neglected other critical but not so glamorous capabilities. These included tactical and strategic airlift, aerial refueling, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance ( ISR ), electronic warfare and other special mission capabilities.

For its tactical airlift needs, the Chinese had traditionally relied on license produced or reverse engineered imitation copies of Soviet transport aircrafts. Beginning from the Nanchang Y-5 which was a licensed copy of the Antonov An-2 in 1957, the Chinese went on to license build the Xian Y-7 which was derived from the An-24 and reverse engineered the An-26 without any license agreement to become the Xian Y-7H. Other examples included the Shaanxi Y-8 which was copied from the An-12. A modernized stretched version of the Y-8 was eventually fielded as the Y-9.

PLAAF Shaanxi Y-8 is a tactical transport copied
from the Antonov An-12. Wikipaedia

Until the recent debut of the Y-20, China never had the capability of producing a large transport, legally or illegally. For its strategic airlift needs, it had a fleet of some 17 Ilushin Il-76MD imported from Russia from the mid-nineties. It may sound like a lot but 17 heavy transport aircrafts for a country as big as China is never sufficient, not especially with China's ambition to become the regional dominant military power. By some estimates China would need up to 200 large military transport to support the activities of its armed forces. The USAF in contrast has about 223 Boeing C-17 Globemaster strategic transport.

Realizing this severe capability gap in military heavy lift, the Chinese had in Sep 2005 attempted to acquire from Russia 34 Il-76MD Candid transport and 4 Il-78KM Midas air-to-air refueling tanker respectively in a deal said to be worth USD1.045billion. The aircrafts were supposed to be constructed at the Tashkent Aviaplant in Uzbekistan, which from 1974 until very recently was the sole factory that had been producing all Il-76s. 90% of the components were to be imported from Russia. Delivery was supposed to commence in 2007 with the last aircraft handed over by 2012. However, the deal subsequently collapsed due to the Tashkent plant not being able to cope with the production volume. The solution suggested was to shift all production works back in Russia but it carried a price increase to USD1.5billion which the Chinese rejected. The Russians never admitted any wrong doing, insisting that it was a three way deal and that they had fulfilled their obligations, instead shifting the blame towards Tashkent. Unable ( unwillingly? ) to provide a refund to the Chinese for the broken deal after spending a large portion of the deposit upgrading new production lines in Russia, the Russians have instead supplied the Chinese with 55 of the D-30KP-2 jet engines that powered the Il-76 and another 10 refurbished ex-Russian / Ukrainian / Belarusian Il-76. ( see images below )

The concurrent requirement for a large platform for their airborne warning and control system then in development and the failure to procure the Il-76 prompted that the Chinese brass to make it an urgent priority to develop an indigenous transport which can then be adapted for other roles like aerial tanker and AWACS. It was under such circumstances that the Y-20 project was initiated.

Refurbishing used Il-76 for China in Jun 2015 Source : Ilyushin

Refurbishing used Il-76 for China in Jun 2015 Source : Ilyushin

Refurbishing used Il-76 for China in Jun 2015.
 The words Chinese Air Force can be seen. Source : Ilyushin


As early as 1993, the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation had already conducted feasibility studies on large aircraft construction. It had also invested USD3billion on infrastructural upgrades.

By 1997, the company had made proposals to the Chinese military for a large transport.

In 2001, it incorporated the vision to produce a 200ton category large aircraft in the company's long term strategic plans and implemented measures to improve on manufacturing processes and techniques.

At around that time the need for a large body aircraft to serve as an AWACS platform meant that XAC was asked by the central government to come up with a blueprint for a large transport in short order. It would be based on the Il-76 but had to be technically superior to the Il-76MD ( extended range version ). Technical assistance was sought from an old ally, the Antonov State Company of Ukraine.

By 2006, the development of large-bodied aircrafts as a national policy had been officially included in China's Medium And Long Term Technological Development Plan and the 11th Five Year Development Plan.

It received in-principle approval at the Executive Meeting of the State Council of the People's Republic of China in Feb 2007.

The large military transport project was officially launched on 20th Jun 2007 and was assigned the code name Project 072.

Over the next few years, XAC reportedly concentrated on improving its knowledge base and capabilities in manufacturing and handling composite materials, fabrication of large aircraft parts and assembly techniques. Its aim was for first flight of the new large transport to take place in 2012.

Y-20 prototype in original yellow and green paint.
Source Baidu ( but obviously taken from )

On 26th Jan 2013, the Y-20 prototype in its yellow and green paint scheme took off for the first time and landed safely after an uneventful flight lasting about an hour. By early March, 2 more ground tests occurred and the Y-20 sported an all new greyish-black paint scheme. Second flight took place on 20th April. Photographs of the first prototype bearing the pennant number red 781 started to appear on the Chinese internet by September 2013.

The first Y-20 prototype red 781. Source : Baidu

By December 2013, the second prototype had achieved first flight. This was followed by the appearance of the third prototype bearing the pennant number 783 just before China's Army Day celebrations on 1st Aug 2014. In November the same year, Y-20 783 made its first appearance at the Zhuhai Airshow. The following month, prototypes number 4 and 5 made their debut.

Towards late 2015, the Chinese news media had it that the development of the Y-20 had been completed.

In June 2016, the first two production Y-20 had been handed over to the PLAAF at a roll-out ceremony. The Y-20 had been declared in operational service with the PLAAF on 6th July 2016 during an induction ceremony which took place in an air base in Chengdu, as widely reported by the Chinese as well as international media.

The first two operational Y-20 being readied for hand over.
Source : Chinese Internet
The first operational Y-20. Chinese Internet

The first operational Y-20 arrives on the tarmac. Chinese Internet

The Y-20's induction ceremony. Source : Chinese Internet

Y-20 Video by Chinese MOD



Released in conjunction with the official induction of the Y-20 into operation service on 6th Jul 2016, the video opens with an excerpt from the ancient Chinese book of Zhuangzi regarding the legend of the Kunpeng, highlighting the two separate words 鲲 and 鹏 in red. Note that classical Chinese text is read from the right to the left and vertically from top to bottom, the exact opposite from contemporary Chinese which follows the Romanised horizontal left to right.

It shows the first flight and the subsequent series of tests the Y-20 had undergone, including operations at high elevations ( 高原试验 ), extreme cold weather ( 高寒试验 ), cross winds ( 正侧风试验 ), rain ( 雨中飞行试验 ) and night operations ( 夜间飞行试验 ).

The second half of the video focused on the functional capabilities of the Y-20 which includes all-weather rapid armour deployment ( 全天候快速机动部署 ),  large scale strategic air drops (大规模战略投送 )  joint operative airborne deployments ( 整建制空投空降作战 ), disaster relief and humanitarian assistance ( 抢险救灾和人道主义援助 ).

It ends with the words Big Heart (大情怀 ), Big Contribution (大奉献 ), Big Co-operation ( 大协同 ), Big Advancement (大跨越 ) and Big Lift (大运载 ). Don't you just love these commie propanganda? They feed the souls of billions!

Aerodynamic Layout


Reports in the Chinese media suggested that the designers of the Y-20 studied the aerodynamics and structural designs of the Ilyushin Il-76 closely and also " incorporated " features of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster, a tacit way of saying they copied the Russian and American designs. In fact on closer look the Y-20 has a striking resemblance to the C-17, from the swept-back cantilever high wing to the rather rotund fuselage, the main landing gear assembly and the T-tail. At first glance, most people would find it difficult to tell the two aircrafts apart if all the identification decals and pennant numbers were removed.

Although some authorities like the folks at Global Security believe that the resemblance is only superficial as the laws governing aeronautical engineering and aerodynamics are the same in any country, the similarities between the Y-20 and the C-17 is anything but. Just looking at the tail assemblies and you will realize that the Chinese copied the Boeing design lock stock and barrel. Perhaps they are not smart enough to even modify and enhance an existing design. Even when plagiarizing, do it creatively and make it less obvious!

We also know for a fact that China had obtained classified technical documents on the C-17 through espionage. In 2009 an ex-Boeing contractor had been convicted of selling the secret documents to Chinese agents covering not just the C-17 but also the Space Shuttle and the Delta IV rocket. Unfortunately, blatant infringement of intellectual property rights is nothing new to China and the Chinese who had reverse engineered almost every thing that they had laid their dirty hands on, from aircrafts to missiles and engines.

The Xian Y-20 ( above ) looks strikingly similar to the
Boeing C-17 Globemaster III shown below. Source : Chinese Internet

The RCAF Boeing C-17 shown here has a pair of wingtip winglets,
 a slightly rounder nose cone and a slightly different wheel arrangement
for its main landing gear, compared to the Y-20. Source : Wikipaedia

The Load Capacity

The Y-20 was designed and constructed with the aim of improving on the performance of the Il-76 in all aspects. The Il-76 is and will still be the mainstay of the Chinese strategic airlift fleet, until enough of the Y-20 can come into operational service.

A PLAAF Il-76MD Candid strategic transport landing at
Perth Airport during the search for MH-370 in 2014.
The Il-76 is currently the backbone of the Chinese
strategic transport fleet. Source : Chinese Wikipaedia

The Il-76MD and the Y-20 have comparable external dimensions with both aircrafts measuring about 47m in length and almost 15m in height. Only the Il-76 has a slightly longer wing span at 50m compared with the Y-20's at 45m. The empty weight of the Il-76MD stands at 89000kg while the Y-20 weighs in at 100000kg, a good 11 tons heavier. They are currently powered by the same D-30KP-2 engines and both aircrafts have roughly the same range when fully loaded, 4400km for the Il-76MD and 4500km for the Y-20. So how is it that the Y-20 could have a maximum payload of 66 tons, a 37.5% increase from the Il-76MD's 48 tons really defies logic.

It certainly cannot be accounted for by the slight increase in aerodynamic efficiency of the Y-20 over the Il-76 alone. It could also not have been an increase of the load capacity at the expense of fuel capacity, otherwise one would observe a drastic reduction of the aircraft's range, which was not the case for the Y-20. Therefore the only probable conclusion is that the Y-20's 66 ton maximum cargo load is only attainable when it is fitted with the new WS-20 high bypass turbofans which have a higher thrust rating. There are unofficial estimates that when configured with the same set of four D-30KP-2 engines as the Il-76, the current Y-20 could only lift about 50 tons, marginally better than the Il-76.
The Il-76MD has a deeper but narrower and shorter cargo hold measuring 24.54 x 3.45 x 3.40m long where as the Y-20's freight compartment is wider and taller at 20 x 4.5 x 4m. The Chinese claim that this bigger cargo hold also gives the Y-20 more flexibility in terms of the variety of cargo it can carry, especially those that have large vertical dimensions. This is probably true as most cargo bulk out before they max out their weight limit. An aft ramp, part of the rear cargo-loading assembly, allows loading and unloading of large-sized cargo and equipment.

The Y-20 is capable of carrying all existing types of Chinese armoured vehicles including the Norinco ZTZ-99 main battle tank of the PLA which can weigh anything from 51 to 58 tons, depending on the variant. There are unconfirmed reports that the freight compartment of the Y-20 had been re-designed in 2010 to specifically allow it to accommodate the ZTZ-99A2, the PLA's heaviest MBT.

The ZTZ-99 main battle tank of the PLA can be
transported by the Y-20. Chinese Internet.

It's The Engines, Stupid

The Y-20 is powered by 4 Soloviev D-30KP-2 low bypass turbofans imported from Russia. These are very old engine designs originating from the Soviet era. The D-30 series engines started out in the mid-seventies as a consequence of the Soviet Union's quest for a supersonic interceptor to supplement and replace the MiG-25 Foxbat which had two very powerful but thirsty Tumansky R-15 turbojets that performed poorly at low altitudes and had a tendency to break down at maximum throttle. The new engine, a turbofan in its afterburning version known as the D-30F6 rectified most of the shortcomings of its predecessor and gave the next generation interceptor the MiG-31 Foxhound a top speed of Mach 2.83 at height and supersonic performance at low altitudes. The non-afterburning military version, the D-30KP-2, had been installed on the Il-76MD/TD, the Il-62M, and on the newest H-6K bomber of the PLAAF while the civilian version, the D-30KU, had been used on the Tupolev Tu-154M airliner.

The D-30KP-2 turbofans of the Y-20. Chinese Internet

A close-up view of the D-30KP-2. Chinese Internet

The D-30KP-2 off the Il-76MD. Source : Wikipaedia

The Achilles' heel of the Chinese aviation industry had always been its inability to design and manufacture quality jet engines that are needed to power modern day aircrafts and that is not at all surprising. To construct an aircraft engine like the Pratt and Whitney F117-PW-100 that powers the C-17 Globemaster requires knowledge and expertise in multiple disciplines from material science to metallurgy to thermodynamics. Manufacturing tolerances are extreme, where even small quantities of impurities can lead to premature metal fatigue and catastrophic failures. Clearances between moving parts like the turbine blades are frequently measured in microns, rather than millimeters. These are some of the reasons why jet engines cannot be manufactured by just any Tom, Dick and Harry, or perhaps we should say any Mao, Deng and Xi.

When reverse engineering the J-11 fighter which is a legitimate licence produced version of the Su-27 Flanker by China, the Chinese made WS-10 engine for the illegal copy, the J-11B, was said to require servicing after 30 hours of use compared to the average of 400 hours for Russian produced engines. This illustrates perfectly that a physically identical copy does not always necessarily guarantee functional parity.

Though the Y-20 prototypes and the current initial low rate production batches are fitted with the imported D-30KP-2 turbofans, the Chinese have great plans to ultimately install their own indigenously produced WS-20 turbofan on the Y-20.

The WS-20 ( 涡扇20 ) or Wo Shan-20, meaning Turbofan-20 in Chinese, is believed to have evolved from the Shenyang WS-10A, an improved version of the problematic WS-10 that powered the initial batches of the J-11 clones. It is a high bypass turbofan with a thrust of between 13000 to 16000kgf, a significant improvement over the 10500kgf thrust of the D-30KP-2. Being a high bypass rather than a low bypass turbofan like the older D-30KP-2 means the WS-20 will have a larger diameter by virtue of its larger fans and bypass ducts. It looks a lot shorter and chubbier. Apart from having a higher thrust which can translate to a shorter take-off distance and a greater maximum payload, the additional advantages that the new engine is expected to offer includes better fuel efficiency, lower emissions, lower maintenance, higher reliability, longer life span and lower acoustic signature.

The WS-20 had been researched in secrecy and not much was known about its development. By 2014, photographs began appearing on the Chinese internet showing an Il-76 test aircraft with a very unusual engine configuration : 3 of the usual D-30KP-2 and a WS-20 engine mounted on for flight testing. Reports claim that the WS-20 had completed ground and flight tests within an eighty day period between Sep and Dec 2014 and could hopefully be equipping the Y-20 in 2017 or 2018.

Il-76 test bed with its 3 original D-30KP-2 and a WS-20 on the port wing. Chinese Internet 

Diagram of the WS-20 Turbofan. Chinese Internet

Model of the WS-20 Turbofan. Chinese Internet

The Avionics

The Y-20 has an advance digital cockpit that is supposedly light years ahead of the Il-76's largely analogue interface. It features an indigenous integrated avionics suite based on the ARINC429 data bus to link up the various components like the flight control system, the navigation system, the communications system, and the monitoring systems for the engines and meteorological data.

There are reports that it will be equipped with a slew of self-protection apparatus including a missile approach warning system ( MAWS ), ? radar warning receiver ( RWR ) and chaff and flare dispensers.

Aerial Refueling Ready?

Can the Y-20 receive fuel in the air? IHS Jane's does not think so but logic tells us that it should, since this is the only practical way of extending the range an aircraft significantly without increasing its take-off weight or reducing its load carrying capacity or drastically reducing its aerodynamic performance via external drop tanks. After load capacity, range is probably the next most important parameter for a transport aircraft. It is range that defines a strategic transport - the ability to move materiel and personnel from one theatre to another. Therefore it does not make sense to design a next generation transport without this critical capability. However, whether the Y-20 has the capability of receiving fuel in the air is not immediately obvious from all the photographs in the public domain. We do not see any refueling probes protruding from the fuselage or any structures that could be boom receptacles.

Computer generated image of the Y-20. Just like the winglets, the
dorsal refueling probe does not exist in the current production model.
Chinese Internet

CG image of a Y-20 with a dorsal refueling probe.
Chinese Internet
My suspicion? In their rush to launch the Y-20 into operational service, refueling capability had been omitted, just like how the D-30KP-2 engines are used as a stop gap measure while waiting for the development of the WS-20 to be completed. The Chinese aeronautical engineers have taken a leaf out of Microsoft's book and there are reasons for doing so.

Firstly, the PLA is so short on strategic airlift capability that they cannot accept any delays to the Y-20 project. The Y-20's range of 4500km with its maximum load of 66tons is already record breaking for the Chinese and is sufficient to allow it to fly non-stop traversing the breath of China from Harbin in the north-east to Kashgar in the far west ( 4128km ). Similarly, from Kashgar it can just about reach Djibouti in East Africa ( 4502km ) where China has opened a supply base. The PLAAF would probably prefer to have a Y-20 without refueling capability now, rather than to have to buy more Il-76 from Russia while waiting for the perfect Y-20 to be developed.

Secondly, even if the Y-20 had refueling capability, the PLAAF and the PLANAF have yet to develop an effective tanker fleet. The current H-6 bomber derived HU-6 tanker ( sometimes designated HY-6 or H-6U ) could carry 37 tons of fuel of which only 18.5 tons are transferable. While this is sufficient to fill the tanks of six J-8D fighters, it could take about three H-6U to fill the near empty tanks of a single Y-20. And since the probe and drogue system is used on all Chinese tankers and the maximum rate of transfer is 1500 liters per min, it would have taken 45mins to fill a Y-20, excluding the time spent maneuvering. Not exactly an efficient way to provide fuel. This is why the Chinese have recently also bought three Il-78 Midas tankers with much greater fuel capacity as an interim measure, while they try to field a tanker version of the Y-20. So, it really makes no difference in the short term if the initial tranche of Y-20 cannot be refueled in the air.

H-6U tanker with probe and drogue system and J-10 fighters. Chinese Internet

Less likely, the engineers might have been waiting for the refueling system of the Y-20 based future aerial tanker to be finalized before fitting it to the transport fleet. Logically, only the flying boom system should be used on large aircrafts since the rate of fuel transfer can be much higher than what the probe and drogue system could achieve. The Y-20 based future tanker would than have to be a multi-system set-up like the KC-10 or the KC-46, since it will have to service a horde of legacy fighters of the PLAAF with Soviet, Russian or Chinese origins all fitted with probes and also the Y-20 series which presumably will adopt the boom system.

Assuming that it has not already been installed, the refueling system will probably be installed on later tranches of the Y-20 transport, as well as all the special mission derivatives.

A KC-46A Pegasus of the USAF deploys its centerline drogue 10th Oct 2015.
The boom remain retracted as were the wingpod drogues. USAF Photo

Future Developments

Just like its Russian counterpart the venerable Ilyushin Il-76 which had spawned several variants including the Il-78 Midas aerial refueling tanker and the A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control, the Y-20 will surely be adapted for similar functions within the PLAAF and the PLANAF after sufficient numbers have been procured to fulfill transportation needs.

The Chinese Navy would definitely do well with a long range maritime patrol aircraft for anti-submarine warfare based on the Y-20, a capability it would need if its ambition is to dominate the Southern Seas ( first island chain ) and beyond ( second island chain ).

The Air Force would need many more AWACS aircrafts than the few Il-76 based KJ-2000 and the KJ-500 that it currently has if it were to be taken as a serious player. The Y-20 actually owed part of its existence to the need for an large platform to mount an airborne radar so a Y-20 AWACS is definitely on the cards.

A computer generated image of an AWACS based on
the Y-20 airframe. Source : Chinese Internet

Both the Navy and the Air Force would need many more tankers now that the PLA is deploying further from home than before, illegally occupying reefs and artificial islands in the South China Sea, opening a base in Djibouti, anti-piracy patrols at the Horn of Africa and of course the increasingly frequent intrusion into Japanese airspace over the Ryukyu Islands and Senkaku Island. All current PLA aerial tankers including the H-6U and the Il-78M use the probe and drogue refueling system, unlike the boom system depicted in the computer generated image below. It remains to be seen what system the future tanker would adopt. As explained above, perhaps both?

CG image of an Aerial Refueling Tanker version of the Y-20
with the flying boom system and the J-31 stealth fighter.

Other special mission variants including but not limited to command and control, search and rescue, ELINT/ECM, psyops and fire fighting are all possible future developments.

Exporting the Y-20 

It is probably a certainty that the Y-20 would be available for export sometime down the road when the type has matured and the engine issue settled. There are not many long range strategic airlifters that are currently in production and China has a rather niche product on hand. With the Boeing C-17 already out of production, there is really only the modernized Il-76MD-90A left as its competitor in the same class.

Who might need and could afford to buy the Y-20? Surely not the Japanese or the Americans, but perhaps the Middle Easterners like Saudi Arabia who are increasingly leaning towards Russia and China for arms supply, the Egyptians who are desperately fighting the Brotherhood and buying up whatever they could lay their hands on, and the Iranians who constantly have some things to hide or shift. Further afield would be the South Americans like Argentina with new ambitions in the Southern Atlantic and with nobody to turn to for combat aircrafts except the Chinese and the Russians. Closer to home would be Pakistan, China's long time ally who would definitely buy whatever it takes to counter their mutual enemy India, maybe Bangladesh and some other South East Asian nations sympathetic to the Chinese cause like Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

The prospect for foreign sales would be even higher with the diversification into special mission aircrafts.

The Xian Y-20 can carry a maximum of 66 tons.

The Y-20 with smoky Soloviev D-30KP-2 engines. Chinese Internet.


Strategic Significance

China has huge ambitions to be an East Asian Power and ultimately a World Superpower. To fulfill that goal it has to have a powerful military and the capability of global force projection. In its efforts to build a strategic air force, it had already achieved impressive results in a very short period of time with its fleet of tactical fighters and strike aircrafts, stressing quality over quantity. It had however fallen short in the large aircraft department, seriously lacking strategic bombers and heavy transport aircraft in both quantity and quality and had not had the means to construct them domestically. The H-6 bomber for example is a copy of the Tu-16 which went into operational service with the Soviets in 1954 and had been all but retired by 1993.

It had to rely on the Russians and to some extend the Ukrainians as the provider of large platforms and still could not lay their hands on sufficient numbers. The Y-20 project is China's first successful domestic attempt to build a large aircraft and with it the hope that it could forever rid itself of this unhealthy dependence on Russia.

Officially, the PLAAF claims that it needs larger numbers of transport aircrafts with more advance capabilities to better fulfill its military responsibilities, including national security, domestic and international rescue and relief work. But who buys transport aircraft for just internal security, SAR and HADR? The real reason for the Y-20's existence is that with the rapid mechanization of its Army, the Chinese Air Force must have the capability to support the deployment of these mobile troops wherever they might be required, in or out of the country. They would also have to support ( illegal ) island garrisons and naval operations out to the First Island Chain, a long line of islands and land masses including the Spratly Islands, the Philippines, the Ryukyu Islands, Japanese main islands and even the Kurile Islands in the far north. Some reports suggest that China might buy up to 400 Y-20 while others even estimated that China might need 1000 Y-20s, based on equivalent American and Russian force structures. Such grandiose figures may not be realistic as even producing 100 or 200 Y-20 would have been an astounding achievement. At the current rate of production of 10 aircrafts a year, it would require 100 years to build a thousand strong fleet. Of course one might argue that this is only the low rate initial production ( LRIP ) and the production rate will surely be ramped up later. For comparison, Boeing produced 279 C-17 Globemaster III in its two decade long production run.

Infographic from China Daily dating back to 2013 showing
possible range of the Y-20 with and without refueling.

With its range of 4500km fully loaded, the Y-20 could reach the US territory of Guam from Shanghai, a distance of 3099km. Conversely, from Hainan Island, the Australian city of Darwin is 4256km away and within its reach. If staging from Fiery Cross Reef of the Spratly Islands, it could almost reach Perth in Western Australia which is 4638km away. From Kashgar, it could reach Warsaw, Poland, 4375km away. All these can be achieved by the current LRIP Y-20 without aerial refueling capabilities.

In the future, kitted with refueling systems, it is not inconceivable that the Y-20 might be able to reach Anchorage, Alaska from Harbin ( 5370km ), or London from Kashgar ( 5812km ), or Sydney, Australia, from the Spratly Islands ( 6308km ). I can already visualise scenes from the Red Dawn playing out at Botany Bay. Now you know why those Goddamned airstrips at Fiery Cross have to go the moment hostilities escalate.

Just in case you wondered where those distance figures came from.

The emergence of large numbers of special missions Y-20 like AWACS and maritime patrol in the future would give China monitoring capabilities to effect anti-access / area denial ( A2/AD ) policies to territories up to the First Island Chain or beyond, should it wishes.

The experience and knowhow gained in the design and construction of the Y-20 and its derivatives would in no doubt be applied in China's next generation strategic bomber project, the H-20, hypersonic, if the Russian news agency Sputnik were to be believed. The article also claimed that the bomber would be invisible to air defense, a dead give away that it cannot be taken seriously.

Just like the C-17, the Y-20 could be used as a tactical transport for intra-theatre movement of cargo and personnel. It has a relatively short minimum take-off distance and the capability to land and take-off from unprepared airstrips. It can safety operate from air fields located at high elevations like the Tibetan Plateau. It can operate in all sorts of adverse weather conditions. All these characteristics are hallmarks of a tactical transport. Whether this would happen in the short term is another matter, since China has a whole host of smaller tactical transport like the Y-7 and the Y-8 to fulfill those roles.


The Y-20 is an admirable aircraft. Not many countries could build aircrafts and even less could build one exceeding 200 tons. Unfortunately, China achieved this feat not entirely through their own efforts. Media sources indicated that China received technical assistance from both Russia and Ukraine, resulting in the Y-20 looking a lot like the Antonov An-70, albeit with jet engines instead of propellers. They also cheated through espionage or unauthorized reverse engineering by copying features of the C-17 and probably the Il-76. If only there was a World Anti-Doping Agency equivalent in the world of aviation, the Y-20 might just have been banned from obtaining its flight certifications.

Even so, the Y-20 in its current production form is far from complete or perfect. Although of a similar size as the C-17, its maximum payload is significantly less. Its imported engines are dated designs going back to the Soviet era, low bypass turbofans that are heavy and fuel inefficient. It seems to be lacking aerial refueling capabilities, an all-important feature that should have been incorporated right from the beginning.

Today, 1st August, is coincidentally China's Armed Forces Day. Would you consider the Y-20 " indigenous "?

The Roundel of the PLAAF contains the Chinese characters
八 ( ba, eight ) and 一  ( yi, one ) arranged vertically.
It signifies the 1st August anniversary of the founding of
the People's Liberation Army in 1927. Wikipaedia.

The Y-20 prototype from the rear. Chinese Internet

The Y-20 prototype landing. Chinese Internet


The earliest written reference to the Kunpeng could be traced to the ancient Chinese text of Zhuangzi ( 庄子 ) from the late Warring States period ( 476 - 221 BC ). Named for its traditional author the Taoist sage Zhuangzi himself, it contains stories and anecdotes that exemplified the carefree philosophy of Taoism and is regarded as one of the greatest literary works in all of Chinese history.

The story of the Kunpeng appeared in Carefree Wanderings ( 逍遥游 Xiaoyaoyou ), the first of the Inner Chapters ( 內篇 Neipian ) and the relevant excerpts are as follows :

《庄子·逍遥游》:  " 北冥有鱼,其名曰鲲。鲲之大,不知其几千里也;化而为鸟,其名为鹏。鹏之背,不知其几千里也。怒而飞,其翼若垂天之云;是鸟也,海运则将徙于南冥。南冥者,天池也。"  " 鹏之徙于南冥也,水击三千里,抟扶摇而上者九万里,去以六月息者也。"

Briefly translated, it says that there is a fish in the northern oceans and it is known as Kun. Kun is huge and measures several thousand li. When it turns into a bird, its name is Peng. The back of Peng also stretches several thousand li. When angered, Peng flies and its wings cover the skies like the hanging clouds. As a bird, Peng migrates to the southern oceans, the humongous heavenly pond. As Peng flies, its wings strike the water and generates waves of three thousand li. It creates winds that soar ninety thousand li into the skies. The trip south takes six months.

The original text is of course much longer but most of the descriptions about the mythical Kunpeng lies in the opening verses. It is written in classical Chinese, so it's much like reading Shakespeare in its unabridged form, and you guessed it - Google Translate does not work well on these ancient verses.

So, a fish in the northern realms, a bird in the southern domain, throw in a monster tsunami and add a super whirlwind, that's how a legend was born.

鲲鹏展翅九万里 : The Kunpeng extends its wings and flies
ninety thousand li ( miles ). Chinese Internet

The Xiaoyaoyou passage on the Kunpeng in calligraphy. Chinese Internet

Taoist sage. Perhaps Master Zhuang or Zhuangzi might
look like this in his later years. Chinese Internet 



  1. The Chinese Y-20 IMO is nothing more than the Chinese version of the C-141 Starlifter of the Vietnam era.

    1. The C-141 was a design dating back to the early sixties. The upgraded C-141C has a max payload of 42tons. All had been retired by 2006. It was replaced by the C-17. The Y-20 is therefore two generations newer and could carry more.

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