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?
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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.