China’s ‘Flying Giant’ Y-20 Miliary Transport Aircraft Added To PLAAF’s Fleet As It Looks To Tame Unyielding Taiwan

A refueling variant of China’s Y-20 large transport aircraft recently joined the PLA air patrol exercise near Taiwan for the first time. 

On November 28, the Y-20U aerial refueling plane was sent into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) along with 26 other PLA Air Force aircraft — 18 fighter jets, five nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, two KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft, and a Y-9 transport plane.

This happened on the same day when a Lithuanian parliamentary delegation landed on the island, only a few days after a US congressional delegation visited Taipei.

According to China’s state-owned Global Times, the new aircraft will enhance the capabilities of PLA fighters by giving them extended range and endurance, allowing them to operate near the Taiwan Straits and many other locations in the future. 

China’s Y-20 aircraft arrived in Russia’s Orenburg, September 10, 2021. ( via CGTN)

This is the first time a Y-20 aerial refueling aircraft has been seen in a PLA Air Force mission near the self-governing island, with the Y-20 presumably performing aerial refueling procedures with the two J-16s.

In response to PLA missions, Taiwanese combat jets scrambled, while ground-based air defenses were activated and radio warnings were delivered to incoming planes.

These are routine procedures followed by the Taiwanese military when they track PLAAF aircraft in their ADIZ. The PLA’s aerial intrusion into Taiwan’s airspace has grown in recent years, leading to greater friction between the two.

On October 4, a record of 56 PLA aircraft entered the Taiwanese ADIZ, the highest number of Chinese sorties documented in a single day in 2021.

The Xi’an Y-20: China’s Flying Giant

In 2013, a prototype of China’s Y-20 airlifter flew for the first time, and two years later, it was formally commissioned. In 2018, reports surfaced that a tanker variant was in the pipeline, designated Y-20U.

The design of the aircraft is very close to the Il-78 Midas from the Soviet era, which the PLA also employs. The Y-20U is said to be capable of carrying roughly 90 tones of fuel, which is similar to the Il-78’s capacity.

The Y-20U’s existing operational status and the number of Y-20Us in service are unknown. The Y-20U has a refueling pod under each wing, and a third one is located on the left side of the rear fuselage.  

The Y-20 aircraft can be used in the transportation of personnel and heavy equipment during a time of conflict or humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping missions. Moreover, It can also be customized for operations like Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), and aerial refueling.

The Y-20 aircraft can carry out missions in inclement weather and is capable of operating in small airports in mountainous regions.

The Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation initiated the project, which was formally launched in 2006. The aircraft’s official code name is Kunpeng (Chinese), after the mythical bird depicted in the ancient Taoist book, Zhuangzi, being capable of flying thousands of miles. 

The latest tanker variant, Y-20U. (via Twitter)

However, since its fuselage is significantly wider than any Chinese aircraft previously constructed in China, this flying behemoth is known as “Chubby Girl” within the Chinese aviation industry. The Y-20 is the first cargo plane to employ 3D printing technology to accelerate development and reduce manufacturing costs. 

The Y-20 is currently driven by four Soloviev 12-tonne thrust engines, which are standard on all early manufacturing units. The aircraft has a T-tail empennage structure with high-mounted horizontal surfaces on the vertical stabilizer, as well as a deep and wide fuselage for the cargo section. 

The Y-20 is capable of transporting not only a significant amount of freight or personnel over a long distance but also main battle tanks and other armored vehicles. The PLA’s most current Type 99A or Type 96 battle tanks, as well as any infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, can be transported by the Y-20, which has a maximum payload weight of 66 tones. 

Can Y-20U Boost PLAAF Capability? 

PLAAF’s current fleet of Y-20U aircraft is likely to expand in the near future. China has already ramped up production of the Y-20 airlifters and is working on new, more powerful and economical jet engines.

The PLA’s aerial refueling capability will be considerably enhanced as the number of Y-20Us grows. Currently, China’s tanker fleet is dominated by H-6 aircraft, which can only transport roughly 30 tones of fuel and have a limited range of their own.

The PLA has not yet acknowledged the procurement of this aircraft, but Tang Changhong, the chief designer of the original Y-20 big transport aircraft, was quoted by Global Times as noting that the Y-20 can be modified for particular missions, such as aerial tankers.

In early November, the importance of the Y-20U in supporting potential longer-range aviation missions was underlined in the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress.

China has stated numerous times that it will take all appropriate steps to prevent Taiwan from declaring full independence as Beijing sees the island as a breakaway province, which will be reunited with the mainland in the near future. 

In any case of any conflict, Y-20U would considerably increase the flying range of PLA fighters, improving the reach of missile-carrying aircraft like the H-6K.