China set to introduce new Y-20 variants

A Y-20 strategic airlifter seen at Airshow China 2018. Airborne refuelling and early warning variants are under development. (JR Ng).

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is set to field two new variants of the Y-20 strategic airlifter, PLA and industry officials have revealed.

Y-20 Variations

According to Teng Hui, commander of commander of an aviation regiment attached to the PLA Western Theatre Command and a Y-20 pilot by training, an air-to-air refuelling (AAR) version of the Y-20 “will make its public debut soon”.

He also confirmed that an airborne early warning (AEW) platform is under development. “The Y-20 cargo plane has variants like the Y-20 aerial tanker and Y-20 AEW aircraft,” Teng Hui told China Central Television.

The existence of a Y-20 based AAR capability was first revealed via commercial satellite imagery of Xi’an Aircraft Industry (XAC)’s main production facility at Xi’an-Yanliang airfield in late 2018, where a Y-20 in PLAAF markings was seen fitted with under-wing inflight refuelling pods. More similarly configured prototypes were seen in the same location throughout 2019, suggesting that flight testing was well under way.

PLAAF’s current AAR platforms

The PLAAF’s current AAR platforms are derived from the Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-16 bomber – known as the HU-6 – and the Il-78M transporter. These employ the probe-and-drogue technique for aerial refuelling operations.

The aircraft will offer a fuel carrying capacity of approximately 90 tons, which will be comparable to the Il-78M and more than three times the HU-6’s capacity.

There is no publicly available information of the AEW variant, although Y-20 chief designer Tang Changhong has confirmed that it is under development. The PLAAF presently operates the KJ-200, KJ-500 and KJ-2000 AEW aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Y-20 transporter has taken on a starring role in large-scale domestic airlift operations to deliver medical personnel and supplies to the city of Wuhan, which is the epicentre of a massive outbreak of a novel coronavirus that emerged in late 2019.

Six Y-20 airlifters, along with other transport aircraft such as the Il-76 and Y-9, arrived at Wuhan’s Tianhe International Airport on 13 February, bringing 947 personnel and 47 tons of cargo to the stricken city.

by Jr Ng