Looking suspiciously similar to American Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, China unveils the latest version of its large military transport aircraft.
A new video emerged earlier this week showcasing the latest iteration of China’s Xi’an Y-20 military cargo aircraft, reportedly retrofitted with an indigenous engine.
Featured on the Military Report program produced by state-run broadcasting channel CCTV-7, the Y-20B model demonstrated its capability in action, including loading and air-dropping freight via parachutes, which simulates airborne assault missions.
China's Y-20B with the WS-20 high-bypass engine
Now officially confirmed to be in service with the Chinese air force.
In terms of engine variety and sophistication, China's aerospace engine industry for the most part have entered top tier status, previously occupied by the US pic.twitter.com/ItoTNSBL75
— Zhao DaShuai 无条件爱国🇨🇳 (@zhao_dashuai) April 6, 2023
While many have believed that the aircraft’s official induction into service has already taken place, some experts beg to differ, noting the lack of serial numbers on the demo aircraft in the video. But then again, Beijing may have opted to conceal it for public appearance. That, or the cargo plane showcased, may still be a pre-series variant.
Here are the FIVE things we know about China’s Y-20B military cargo plane thus far.
Retrofitted with an indigenous engine
The Y-20 program began in the late 2000s as China sought to ramp up its military modernization and expansionist ambition across the Asia-Pacific region. It recognized the vital role aircraft would play in 21st-century warfare, including possessing large military transportation that could substantially support troop mobilization in and out of the country. By the end of 2012, the first images of the Y-20 prototype emerged, and shortly after, its maiden flight took place in late January 2013.
The Chinese cargo jet, also called Y-20A, initially employed four 12-ton Soloviev D-30KP-2 engines, a Russian-built two-shaft, low-bypass turbofan engine developed at a time when the Soviet Union still existed. However, challenges to procuring more of these from Moscow hampered Beijing’s capacity to build more, with just about 20 now in operation—not to mention the ongoing conflict in Ukraine that completely redirected Russia’s defense industry onto supplying its campaign, which means further delaying any future deliveries of the D-30KP-2 engines.
With this, China now plans to retrofit its domestically produced WS-20, a 14-ton high-bypass turbofan engine built by state-owned aerospace manufacturer Shenyang.
Apart from removing the reliance on foreign suppliers, the performance of the WS-20 is reportedly more capable and advanced than the Soviet-era engines.
According to The War Zone, each WS-20 engine produces around 31,000 pounds of thrust. That’s over 4,500 more than the D-30KP-2. The former is also significantly more efficient and allows the Y-20 to carry way over 132,000 pounds (about 60 tons) of cargo, the current maximum payload of the Y-20A’s engines.
It remains uncertain, however, whether the re-engined latest Y-20B would close the gap against the US Air Force’s C-17 aircraft, which has a payload capacity of up to 170,900 lbs (78 t). We’ll have to wait and see.
Besides refitting engines, most parts of the Y-20B remain almost identical to the first variant, from the airframe design to its avionic system, with most of its components now domestically produced.
It measures about 47 meters (154’2 feet) in length and has a wingspan of 50 m (164’1 ft), capable of airlifting up to two Type 15 Blank Panther tanks or one Type 99 main battle tank over a distance of 7,800 kilometers (4,800 miles) and a service ceiling of 13,000 m (43,000 ft).
As mentioned, installing WS-20 might increase the aircraft’s ability to carry and transport more equipment and supplies over extended distances.
Given China’s intentions to expand beyond its already enormous territory, the Y-20 B’s improved range capabilities would let Beijing reach more of its far-flung outposts, including those in the South China Sea and maybe outside the Asia-Pacific region.
Taking ‘inspiration’ from American C-17
You might have heard this one from previous reports on how the Y-20 resembles the American C-17 Globemaster III, which McDonnell Douglas developed for the US Air Force between the 1980s and the early 1990s before the aerospace firm merged with Boeing.
Reportedly, a Chinese national stole the US heavy transport aircraft’s design through conspiracy and espionage in 2016.
A man named Su Bin pleaded guilty and admitted to collaborating with Chinese military officers in hacking into the computer networks of major US defense contractors to siphon documents relating to the development of the C-17, as well as fighter jets F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. He was sentenced to 46 months in Federal Prison, but the deed had been done by then.
In 2009, a former Boeing employee also sold technical details of the C-17 to China, which at that time, was at the early stage of the Y-20 program.
These incidents have contributed to the rapid progress of the Y-20 program made in recent years.
By late 2020, despite the initial spreading of false images on the Y-20s, the aircraft was reported to have been spotted conducting test flights at Xi’an-Yanliang Air Base.
Entering service sooner than expected
A couple of Y-20As joined People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in 2016, primarily used for training operations and humanitarian missions. During the earlier months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Y-20 aircraft flew over Wuhan City, the ground zero of the pandemic, to deliver additional medics, medical supplies, and other humanitarian aid.
Moreover, the aircraft also partook in a surveillance fleet the PLAAF deployed to patrol the South China Sea in mid-to-late 2021.
Its most recent deployment, excluding humanitarian assistance, was the transfer of armaments to Serbia in 2022. Six Y-20s were reportedly detected flying into Serbia carrying FK-3 surface-to-air missile systems roughly six weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine—demonstrating the aircraft’s long-range transport capabilities.
Military analysts previously said that the Y-20B, powered by WS-20 engines, will take to the skies in 2024. However, given China’s astonishing modernization progress in recent years, it will most likely roll off the assembly line sooner than predicted. The number of units might still be limited by then, but it will come.
Other upcoming variants
Other Y-20-based derivatives, including an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform designated as KJ-3000, and an aerial refueling tanker, Y-20U, are expected to join the PLAAF sometime in the future.
The latter reportedly became operational after being spotted refueling Shenyang J-16 fighter jets in July last year and will likely receive WS-20 engines.
PLAAF officially announces the induction of Y-20U tanker and releases the footage of Y-20U refueling J-16. pic.twitter.com/AKMJFoshpp
— dafeng cao (@dafengcao) July 31, 2022
Meanwhile, the KJ-3000 is still under development, with no additional specifics available.
This is an interesting model: A white fairing can be seen installed on top and under the fuselage and some claim, the landing gear / gear fairing was lengthened too … 🤔
Even if IMO it is not the rumoured KJ-3000 AEW, a variant for EW/ELINT/SIGINT could be a possibility. pic.twitter.com/RTsB8vi0ZO
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) December 20, 2022
Unconfirmed reports regarding the development of the Chinese AEW&C variant suggested that the aircraft would more likely be an airborne command post or longe-range communications aircraft based on the available information, which intended to support missions in the vast waters of Asia Pacific, such as providing eyes for PLA Navy’s ballistic missiles submarine (SSBNs). A similar role US Navy’s E-6B Mercury is fulfilling.