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Jan 29, 2013 | 11:00 GMT

China Develops Its Strategic Airlift Capability

Mark Nolan/Getty Images

The Y-20 strategic airlifter, developed by China's Xian Aircraft Industry Corp., took an hourlong test flight on Jan. 26 — its maiden voyage. If the development of the military transport plane is successful, it will fill a gap in China's arsenal and constitute a significant part of Beijing's incipient force projection and force multiplier capabilities. However, the Y-20 project is still in its early stages and already behind schedule. Moreover, the strategic airlifter has encountered several technical obstacles that could further slow its development.

For its size and power, the Chinese military is lacking in strategic airlift capacity. The military's inventory of heavy freighters consists of approximately 20 aging Russian-built IL-76MD aircraft, soon to be reinforced with 10 additional used IL-76MDs. In 2005, China sought to address this deficiency by purchasing 34 new-build IL-76MDs and four IL-78 aerial refueling tankers in a $1.5 billion deal with Russia. However, the contract fell through when it became clear that the aircraft plant in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where the planes were to be built, lacked the requisite capacity.

The dearth of heavy transport aircraft significantly limits Chinese military capability, since the People's Liberation Army has not been able to fly its heaviest armored vehicles, such as the 58-ton Type 99A2 main battle tank. The small number of heavy freighters also limits China's ability to deploy large formations in a short period of time. For example, the Chinese air force's 15th Airborne Corps constitutes the bulk of China's strategic reaction force, but only one of the corps' three divisions can deploy to any part of the country within 48 hours. Moreover, the lack of large airlifters limits the number of strategic force multipliers the Chinese air force can deploy. All five of China's KJ-2000 airborne warning and control systems use the IL-76 platform, and the military does not have strategic aerial refueling tankers in part because of the lack of suitably large aircraft.

For all these reasons, China listed the home-grown development of a strategic airlifter as a top priority in its Medium- and Long-Term National Science and Technology Development Program (2006-2020). An estimated 20 billion yuan ($3.2 billion) were allocated specifically for the development of large military transport planes. With the first Y-20 test flight, it appears that the program is bearing fruit.

The Y-20 could resolve many of the outstanding issues caused by China's lack of heavy freighters. The airlifter is similar in size to the Russian IL-76 but appears to have a wider and taller cargo bay, lending credence to Beijing's claim that the aircraft can transport the Type 99 main battle tank. With its alleged 60-ton capacity and range of more than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles), the Y-20 will give the Chinese air force the ability to project significant force over long distances. The Y-20 also offers the Chinese a multi-use airframe that can be suitable for multiple roles including heavy transport, aerial refueling and airborne early warning.

However, China has yet to overcome a number of obstacles in the development of the Y-20. As a Chinese military spokesman stated on Dec. 27, large transport aircraft are complex technically, and the development of the Y-20 will take time. Indeed, the Y-20 is roughly two years behind schedule, a problem that is somewhat unsurprising given that similar transport projects — such as the European Union's A400M and Japan's Kawasaki C-2 — have also encountered obstacles and delays.

The most significant limiting factor in the Y-20 program remains the development of sufficiently reliable and powerful engines for the aircraft. Currently, the Y-20 prototype is powered by the Russian D-30KP-2 turbofan, an engine that leaves much to be desired in terms of performance and fuel efficiency and limits the Y-20's potential. Before the end of the decade, the Chinese hope to fit the Y-20 fleet with more powerful high-bypass WS-18/20 turbofan engines, currently being developed indigenously.

The first flight of the Y-20 has heralded China's entry into an elite club of nations that can produce strategic transport aircraft with intercontinental range. If successful, the Y-20 will provide a substantial boost to the Chinese military in a number of areas, but its success is not guaranteed.

China Develops Its Strategic Airlift Capability
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