Limited Liftoff Looming: Y-20 Transport Prepares for 1st Test Flight
Image Credit: x-ray delta one (Flickr)

Limited Liftoff Looming: Y-20 Transport Prepares for 1st Test Flight


In 2011 and 2012, China flight-tested stealth fighter prototypes developed by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (J-20) and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (J-31). In 2013, Xi’an Aircraft Corporation (XAC) will look to get into the new aircraft game by flight-testing a prototype of the Y-20, an indigenously-developed large transport aircraft similar in size to the Russian IL-76 and somewhat smaller than the U.S. C-17. The Y-20 program is part of an effort to develop an indigenous long-range jet-powered heavy transport aircraft, a top priority in China’s “Medium- and Long-Term National Science and Technology Development Program (2006–20)” (MLP).

Now satellite images have revealed the Y-20’s presence at Yanliang airfield, near Xi’an, which hosts the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)’s China Flight Test Establishment (CFTE). There it reportedly began low-speed taxi testing on  December 21, 2012. On  January 3, 2013, Aviation Industry of China (AVIC) Chairman and Party Secretary Lin Zuoming visited Yanliang to observe the situation there and offer his gratitude for contributions made and successes achieved by the numerous CFTE and XAC personnel who have been toiling to prepare testing and test flights. While it is only natural for an aviation executive to engage in such activities at a flight test center, the Y-20’s presence there nevertheless suggests that its test flight is one of the ones being readied. What will a Y-20 test flight suggest about China’s aviation development and military capabilities?

Status and Attributes

On December 27, 2012, PLA Ministry of National Defense spokesman Yang Yujun (杨宇军) confirmed what grainy photos that appeared on the Internet several days before already suggested: “to meet the requirements of national economic and social development, support modernization of the armed forces, [and] improve humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and other emergency tasks, China is undertaking its own development of large transport aircraft (大型运输机), to build and strengthen air transport capacity.” Yang asserted that “The research and development of China’s large transport aircraft is proceeding as planned.”

Yang was also careful to emphasize, however, that the Y-20’s research, development, and acquisition (RDA) process would take time: “Large transport aircraft are technically complex, and need to undergo a series of research and development processes [including] design, prototype, test, [and] test flight.”

The timing of the Y-20’s images and “announcement” was interesting. While it might have been a coincidence based on long-term programmatic development, or even timed deliberately to minimize U.S. reactions amid holidays and fiscal cliff negotiations, it is also possible that it was influenced by such internal organizational considerations as approvals, budgets, program timelines, or the need for Xi’an to record a success in 2012 following major publicity for Chengdu and Shenyang’s accomplishments.

As for specific characteristics, the Y-20 appears to have a well-shaped, capacious cargo hold—a logical design, given its intended core role. It is much wider and taller than that of the Russian IL-76, as well as anything that a future transport variant of China’s C-919 commercial airline would be likely to offer. More importantly, the Y-20’s dimensions and maximum load capability are likely compatible with whatever the PLA wants to transport in the future, just as A-400M was specifically designed to be able to accommodate certain types of future-generation European armored personnel carriers (APCs), both dimensionally and weight-wise. Conversely, if dimensionally the Y-20 “only” fits the PLA’s Type 99 tanks and current- or future-generation APCs or heavy trucks, this might indicate that a larger model to haul main battle tanks could follow in the future.

Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong
February 1, 2013 at 15:18

This is my first time here. Now, I know why USA is going down the hill, by having too many jerks. 

[...] further background, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Limited Liftoff Looming: Y-20 Transport Prepares for 1st Test Flight,” The Diplomat, 8 January 2013. [...]

January 27, 2013 at 06:19

The comment is nothing but trash talking.

January 18, 2013 at 12:06

Do you think the united states only use american made components in their aircrafts? F-35 was a joint development, Boeing outsources its parts, so on and son on. The 21st century is the century of globalization, no country can build everything on its own.  LNRDS, your comparison to something that happened 10-15 years ago is ridiculous, why don't your head under a rock and pretend that the USA is still as powerful as it used to be. You are delusional, all great empires fall and it's the USA's time. Stupid simple minded child, stick to playing starcraft instead posting comments on topics that have no understanding of. 

Joseph Tan
January 17, 2013 at 20:22

Beautifully said, Anon

January 17, 2013 at 03:03

Realistically Lnrds is correct regarding the irrelevance of the Y-20 as an advancement in China's Global Airlift capacity.  The Engines are imported from Russia and the airframe does not have sufficient resilience to transport significant payloads (like MBTs) any real distance.  Whilst Chinas growing military development is of concern to many parties, not just the US, they are very much still underdeveloped when it comes to a significant domestic R&D industry.  This is not to say that they aren't taking significant steps to rectify the situation.  China bashing or no, the  concerns over China's percieved "technological leaps" and joining the "exclusive club of nations" is nothing more  than scare mongering  aimed at increasing awareness of the percieved military imbalances in South East Asia.  China, assuming they have the money, will need  20 years of industrial development and investment in new technologies, or a massive and far more effective industrial espionage program to arrive at the same level as current Western or US technological levels of today. 
The real question is one of size, not tech, China has a massive population that needs employment, feeding and clothing, and they have limited space and resources with which to do it.  The concerns of the rest of the world are based on; Where? and possibly more importantly, How, will the Chinese government seek to redress this deficiency? 

January 15, 2013 at 17:34

China has 177 successive and successful launches of its Long March rocket. US has two successive space shuttle exploding before the world, after a mere few dozens successful launches. When the Chinese put their minds to it, it beat the US hands-down just like in the Beijing Olympics. US was never beaten, but the Asian Giant beat the US hollow after its first and only hosting of the Games.

January 15, 2013 at 16:25

They're paid sockpuppets…you see them springing up everywhere when there's a discourse about China, Russia or Iran. It's easy to tell – say, if it's about the South China Seas and China's disputes with Vietnam, they're all gungho and pro-Vietnam, but if you look at any Vietnam threads, they're BLANK, none of these "concerned moral crusaders" show any interest …
These sock puppets are only paid to disperse certain types of disinformation, thus they offer little to no value in terms of contents. Their job is to hijack discourse, a very undemocratic thing to do and a violation of the First Amendment. But a job is a job, and at the rate of unemployment, who else have the deep pockets to hire paid shills?
However, in the larger scheme of things, what is the point to post insults about China, and all these attacks? Is it to drive hatred of China, to wage a propaganda war, etc.? Is this the best way to deal with a rising power like China? Is it a zero-sum end game?
As an example of useless efforts, from the looks of it, it appears that Japan has managed to convince the world that China is the bully, and Japan has the right to the spoils of 1895, i.e. Diaoyu Islands, since there're so many sock puppets who pop up to unanimously chime like the sheep in Animal Farm, "Four legs good, two legs baaaad…" At the geopolitical level, what happens is that while the US wants its proxies, eg. Japan, to vex China to increase leverage over China, one unintended consequence is that the Rightwing in Japan could very well seize the opportunity to drag the US and NATO into a costly, direct conflict with China, as Japan is unable to do so on its own, despite all the propaganda about broken Chinese planes.
So the Americans have to ask themselves if it is to their geopolitical advantage to have the tables turned, to be hijacked by Japan for Japan's own end. Japan has little to lose to escalate and to convince the world to take on China, since it received unambiguous assurance from the US to fight to its last soldier for some rocks close to China's coast and the minerals underneath.
Japan also has to ask itself if it is to Japan's advantage to destabilize the region, get shut off from China's vast market and the trade surplus that drove Japan's economy for the past decade in order to let its Rightwing, torch bearers of its neo-fascist WW2 ideology, regain its influence.
In the end, it strikes me as bizarre that Japan will embark on such a kamikaze effort. Perhaps that is the only way it can re-establish its own sovereignty.

January 15, 2013 at 16:02

Actually, can someone who compares the quality of a $1 toy plane (probably paid the Chinese 10 cents to make them) with the development of stealth fighters and transport planes be taken seriously??!!
Why are high schoolers with deeper knowledge of Starcraft than current affairs posting on a site like the Diplomat these days?

January 15, 2013 at 15:56

Right, and the space ships and satellites that the Chinese have sent to space are also bought parts from US, Russia and NATO and then welded together.
It's actually good for China to be underestimated, what a nice surprise when the showdown begins….

January 11, 2014 at 11:21

” Its actually good for china to be underestimated” in I942 there was a big propaganda board showing a Japanese soldier with split eyes and big glasses. It said the Japanese could not shoot straight. In 3 months the Japanese conquered the British colony of Malaysia and Singapore and in three weeks the Netherlands East Indies after they destroyed Pearl Harbor. The West only want to believe their wishful thinking
I agree with you Mr Anon

January 15, 2013 at 01:35

What do I know about China, ABC? Just about as much as a next-door neighbor would know. Only the SCS separates China and my country. And hopefully it stays that way.

January 12, 2013 at 08:15

Reveal what you allege please, do not make scurrilous assertions. TheDiplomat is based in Japan and is part and parcel of the global anti-PRC bloc also generally referred to as the China-bashers club. According to the rules of this club, nothing done by the PRC is ever right; every move is always wrong and needs its endless or intense scrutiny. Clearly, this club would never take a look in the mirror lest the image of the devil appeared immediately. Hell is truly the one and only final destination for this club. Remember the Mankato misdeeds and many, many other misdeeds  ? Hell is certainly awaiting this club.

John Chan
January 12, 2013 at 01:45

USA bans export vibration test bed larger than 6 tons to China, meanwhile China is exporting 15 tons vibration test bed to the USA, it just proves how silly the Americans are.

January 12, 2013 at 00:06

If you think developing aircraft, no matter it's this Y-20, or stealth fighter, is still within scope of engineering, craftsmanship, not black magic which only smart European/ US can do, this article already show you that this project will be completed on time. Chinese is not sleeping/day dreaming when they state they want to develop a large transport aircraft,they work on it. As to material science, they already work on them several decades, yes, in the beginning, they know less/almost nothing, but that's forty to fifty years ago, now many things is already mature enough. As you may know, China has the best wind tunnel among Asian country, better than Japan, which is comparable with US and Russia, sophisticate test/analysis facility which is highly classified.
This bird will join Chinese Air force fleet sometime later, the problem is only time.

Johan Abdullah
January 10, 2013 at 14:22

"China acquires/imports parts and then welds them together, then shows off to the world their advancement. It makes me cry! for them its like connecting a jigsaw puzzle and then a pretty flag is slapped on."
Stupid Lnrds.  Why reinvent the wheel when all the parts are available already, whether in China or elsewhere in the world?  Its cheaper and faster.  Second, that is a cheapshot comment.  You think the US and Europe and Japan would sell China any hi tech parts?  If not, you think it is easily availbale in the open market place then? 
Really, stupid is stupid, and Lnrds beats them all.  And a cheap shot too.

January 10, 2013 at 01:26

Genghis do you even know what your talking about? Can I get a source for your hilarious claim? Anyways the USA shrugged off the fiscal cliff without a single hitch in the stock market, and the western markets have proven to be the most resilient markets over the past few centuries.
The economies of western europe for example have survived the following: 2 world wars, the great depression, the cold war, and countless recessions such as the recessions in the 1970s and 1980s. Its quite silly to assume that western economies will just suddenly collapse due to some economic shocks and adjustments that will simply take some time to heal over.
The west, being at the forefront of technological development, will be able to ride the next technological revolution much more quickly than the backward asian economies and will be better suited to adapting all the new technology as well. As such western economies may be stagnating or slightly waning right now, but in the future perhaps 10-20 years from now the west, due to its superior universities and research centers as well as its wealth of nobel laureates will surge ahead once again during the next revolution, just as they had surged ahead during the industrial and information revolutions.

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