After debuting at the Dubai Air Show in December 2023, the Y-20 E multi-role transport aircraft is ready to be exported. Media reports suggest that the largest military aircraft currently in production and nicknamed “Chubby Girl” is being offered to Nigeria.
This comes after reports that Beijing is planning to sell its stealth J-31 fighters to Pakistan. The full report and analysis can be read here.
With the capability equivalent to the US C-17 Globemaster, the aircraft has made China the third country after the US and Russia to have a domestically developed military-grade multi-role transport aircraft.
The Y-20 was developed by China’s state-owned aerospace major, Xian Aircraft Corporation, and has an empty weight of 110 short tons, making it the largest military aircraft currently in production.
The aircraft is larger than the Russian Ilyushin Il-76, the aircraft that formed the backbone of the PLAAF’s transport fleet. Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III is bigger than the Y-20, but its production stopped in 2015.
Beijing is increasing its production capacity in anticipation of export orders for the aircraft. The export version of the Y-20 E was shown to visiting Nigerian Defense Minister Mohammed Badar Abubakar in Beijing.
The Chinese military magazine Ordnance Industry Science Technology reported this last week that the Y-20 BE (the export model) was put on the international market in November 2023 when it was shown to the Nigerian defense minister, the South China Morning Post reported.
According to the report, it will be an opportunity for China “to establish deeper strategic relationships and cooperation with countries once they have the Y-20”.
The report highlighted how instead of the aircraft being assembled at a fixed workstation, there is a “pulse line” to move parts along. The Y-20’s assembly lines are similar to those used to manufacture state-of-the-art aircraft like Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and Boeing 787.
Over 90 percent of Y-20’s components are manufactured using robotic arms and laser-assisted high-precision assembly work.
China’s “Chubby Girl” Powers Its Global Ambition
As reported by the EurAsian Times earlier, the multi-role tanker aircraft Y-20U powered by four Shenyang WS-20s has boosted China’s ambition to project power beyond the first chain of islands.
The Y-20, officially called “Kunpeng” after a mythical Chinese bird, is powered by new engines, giving it far superior endurance and air-refueling capability that will increase its reach beyond the first island chain, a string of islands encumbering the seas around China.
The first island chain consists of a group of islands, including Taiwan, Okinawa, and the Philippines, which China sees as the first line of defense. The “second island chain” in the Western Pacific runs from south-eastern Japan to Guam and south to Indonesia.
When required, the Y-20 aircraft can be fitted as an airborne early warning and control version. The new engines will allow the Chinese Air Force to carry out offensive missions across continents, a capability imperative as it creates a network of overseas military bases to match the US dominance.
Capability-wise, Y-20 is similar to the US military’s workhorse C-17, which has been a game changer in transporting troops and cargo across the world since its induction in 1995.
The American strategic heavy lifter can easily haul troops and ammunition across continents, for instance, from the US to Afghanistan. Since its induction into the service, Y-20’s versatility has helped the PLAAF to quickly mobilize large forces and cargo with its payload capacity of 73 short tons.
The payload capacity makes the Y-20 easily transport China’s biggest tank, the ZTZ99, along with other vehicles and supplies. With Russian engines, the Chubby Girl has a range of 4,850 miles while carrying 40 tons of cargo and 2,800 miles when fully laden.
What the older version of the Y-20 lacked was the ability for ‘hot and high’ take off, while the C-17 could do it. Taking off from hot and high airfields can seriously affect the performance of all aircraft.
Taking off from hot and high airfields can be tricky because of the lack of lift, reduced engine power, and reduced climb performance. This requires a reduction in the weight at which we can take off. This is known as a Performance Limited Take Weight (PLTOW).
Along with the hot and high capability, the WS-20 turbofan engine will give the Chubby Girl short take-off capabilities and enhanced range. In addition to functioning as a transport, the Y-20 could be outfitted as a refueling tanker for other military aircraft or used as a strategic command center to coordinate fighter jets and drones in combat.
In 2021, the Y-20 aerial refueling tanker, for the first time flew with 27 aircraft of PLAAF intruding into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
While Chinese military aircraft flying into ADIZ has been routine, the appearance of a tanker variant of the Y-20 airlifter indicated the role these MRTTs will play in future military intervention against Taiwan and other military missions in the Pacific and beyond.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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