China’s Z-20 helicopter has often been compared with the American Black Hawk choppers. But the fact of the matter is that the Black Hawk comes in several variants whereas the Chinese chopper used by the PLA is a medium-lift utility helicopter meant for transport purposes.
Speculation is rife that the Z-20 will also be modified to perform multiple functions. Observers say that an armed, aerial refueling-capable variant of China’s Z-20 is now under development. The aircraft’s manufacturer recently published a concept art for this variant, reported Global Times.
On January 31, the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the manufacturer of the majority of aircraft used by the Chinese PLA, released a promotional video titled “In the blue sky” on social media platforms, in which the company summed up its accomplishments in 2021.
The video shows computer-generated visuals of the three “20” series aircraft built by AVIC, particularly the J-20 stealth fighter jet, the Y-20 big transport aircraft, and the Z-20 helicopter.
While the digital art for the J-20 and Y-20 appears to be identical to their real-life counterparts, the Z-20 looks significantly different from the ones currently in service with the PLA, as it has a pair of short wings, each carrying four missiles and a multiple rocket launcher.
According to analysts, this Z-20 is most likely an armed assault variant; given the existing version of the Z-20 is a utility version for primarily transport missions and lacks wings and weaponry.
However, this is not the first time that PLA had signaled that it could be inducting more variants of this chopper. In January last year, the media had reported on two new variants of China’s Z-20 utility helicopter for anti-submarine warfare and assault.
PLA Navy Southern Theater Command debuts navalized, shipboard variant of the Z-20 helicopter for the first time at recent wargames in this rare photo. The resemblance to the Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk is striking. pic.twitter.com/bBj9GZ0Apb
— Collin Koh (@CollinSLKoh) January 8, 2021
The light gray-painted chopper at the time was spotted flying in a coastal zone in a photo issued by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) South China Sea Fleet in a statement outlining the fleet’s drills. Military experts had then predicted that the Z-20 variant was probably a vessel-based anti-submarine warfare variant.
Z-20 Attack Helicopter?
The variant spotted in January last year was said to be an assault variant, the pictures of which were doing the rounds on social media.
It featured a round, downward-facing radar dome under its nose, and its rear landing gear was located at the end of the cabin rather than at the end of the tail, as shown in the photo.
A clear photo of the Harbin Z-20F, the naval anti-submarine warfare (ASW) variant of the Z-20 medium lift #helicopter. Equipped with, among other, sonobuoys dispenser, dipping sonar, surface radar. Armed with torpedoes. Used on Type 075 LHD, aircraft carriers. #China pic.twitter.com/9aFqqVHbT8
— Tycho de Feijter (@TychodeFeijter) January 1, 2022
The armed Z-20 was seen with a machine gun beneath its nose and additional short wings under cabin doors, according to Ordnance Industry Science Technology, a defense magazine based in Xi’an, Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.
The magazine reported in January 2021 that short wings were used to place eight anti-tank missiles, four on each side, but they should also be able to mount additional weaponry such as rocket launchers, machine guns, and air-to-air missiles.
— AEROSINT Division PSF (@PSFAERO) October 20, 2021
So there has been ample evidence to prove that the assault variant has been around for some even as western analysts have compared Z-20 with the Black Hawks.
In addition to features already reported, the new Z-20 seems to feature a long shaft to the right of its nose. This is most likely a refueling probe that permits the chopper to receive airborne refueling, according to aviation specialists.
Deng Jinghui, the helicopter’s principal designer, claimed in an interview with China Central Television, that he was considering expanding the range of the Z-20 by adding aerial refueling capability.
The Z-20 might be developed into variations for vessel-based transport, anti-submarine warfare, special operations, search and rescue, and medical support, in addition to armed assault, according to a Beijing-based military expert.
— Air Data News (Airway) (@airwayaviation) June 6, 2021
Not just this, in January this year, it was hinted that China is rumored to be working on a stealth version of the Z-20 tactical helicopter, which is thought to be a clone of the American UH-60 Black Hawk, as previously reported by EurAsian Times. The speculations, however, were not confirmed by the chief designer.
While the variants will differ in some ways, they will share many basic parts and systems, making production and maintenance much easier than developing completely different helicopters for different missions, according to the expert.
Can It Rival American Black Hawk?
It is pertinent to mention here that China purchased some Black Hawk helicopters in the 1980s. It was a time when Washington had a much better relationship with Beijing than what is seen today. However, the US put a halt to this export in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.
According to the Beijing-based military expert, the current version of the Z-20 is a base version with high utility, and it is highly expected that it will spawn many variants to suit different types of combat needs by the PLA, just as the US has done with its Black Hawk helicopter.
Despite the fact that the updated Z-20 utility helicopter looks almost identical to a US Army Black Hawk, the two may be different in terms of engine power, lift capacity, digital avionics, targeting sensor technology, high-hot conditions capability, and weapons performance.
In fact, a Chinese military expert had himself asserted that although the Z-20 is similar in overall configuration to the US Sikorsky S-70/UH-60 “Black Hawk” helicopter; the fuselage is squarer in shape, particularly in the rear of the passenger cabin.
And this advancement appears to be based on the knowledge accumulated by China’s Army Aviation Force over the course of 30 years of Black Hawk use.