Features | Security | East Asia

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

While China’s stealth aircraft prototypes may get all the buzz, the Y-20 offers new military operational possibilities.

By Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins for

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.”

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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.

Both civil and military dimensions of Chinese “large aircraft” development are highlighted in China’s MLP: “Major special items refer to major strategic products, key generic technologies, and major projects that are to be completed within certain time frames through core technology breakthroughs and resource integration in order to achieve national goals; they are the priority of priorities in China’s S&T development. The Program Guidelines identify 16 major special items covering… large aircraft…” As Xinhua reported in 2008, “According to ‘An Argumentation Report on the Plan for Building Large Aircraft’ [大型飞机方案论证报告] which was published earlier, China’s large aircraft research and development project will have an initial estimated investment of about 60 billion yuan. About 40 billion yuan will be used for the research and development of large-sized civil passenger planes and about 20 billion yuan for the research and development of large-sized military transport planes.” This bifurcation might also constitute an attempt to create plausible denial regarding any future cross-subsidization charges.

Is China indeed devoting major resources to military transport development, and could the Y-20 be one of the principal MLP-funded programs? An article entitled “Existing Domestic Transonic Wind Tunnels Satisfy the Required Conditions for Assessing Large Aircraft Tests” (国内现有跨声速风洞满足大飞机试验需求情况的评估分析) suggests that this may indeed be the case. It was apparently published as part of the “Large Aircraft Key Technology High-Level Forum/China Aviation Association 2007 Annual Conference Proceedings” (大型飞机关键技术高层论坛暨中国航空学会2007年学术年会论文集). In it, Wu Junqiang and Xu Wu (吴军强, 徐来武), researchers at China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center’s High Speed Institute (中国空气动力研究与发展中心高速所), assert that China’s “large transport aircraft has a maximum takeoff weight [MTOW] of 180 tons, a maximum load capacity of over 50 tons, with a wingspan of about 50 meters, and performance superior to [that of the] IL-76” (大型运输机最大起飞重 量达到180吨左右, 最大载重量超过50吨, 翼展约50米, 性能优于伊尔一76). If this apparent disclosure is correct, it is interesting that they didn’t baseline these specifications against the IL-476 with its newer PS-90 engines. As for comparison with the IL-76, it would be interesting to know whether the Y-20 is designed to have the same short-take-off and deteriorated/rough-field capability as the IL-76; if not, this would greatly reduce its value.

Another intriguing question concerns the precise role that Ukraine, with its expertise in transport aircraft, has played in the Y-20’s development. “Following the Cold War, Ukraine has emerged as a particularly willing partner for China’s defense sector,” international aerospace expert Reuben Johnson tells us. “Unlike Moscow, Kiev buys few indigenous products for its military. Russia and Ukraine pursue a symbiotic sales-services division of labor vis-à-vis China, with Russia tending to sell complete systems and Ukraine offering support, servicing, and modification of key components.” At the 2011 Paris Air Show, Johnson reported that Antonov’s General Designer Dmitro Kiva “told the press that there are three areas of activity with the Chinese: the ARJ-21 regional jet [for which Antonov designed the wings], improvements to the Y-8F600, which is based on the old AN-12 design, and a cooperative development effort for a next-generation transport called Y-X. Kiva said he could not comment on whether this aircraft would be a jet or turboprop, but some derivative of the turboprop-driven AN-70 is thought to be one of the options that Chinese industry is evaluating.” While it would seem likely to draw on Antonov’s expertise in some fashion, the Y-20 appears more similar to the less-advanced IL-76 then the AN-70. Perhaps difficulty in emulating the AN-70’s advanced counter-rotating turboprop influenced the Y-20’s development, perhaps China is determined to develop a jet-engine transport for other reasons. In any case, like the J-20 and J-21 fighters, the Y-20 goes beyond China’s earlier close-copying/emulation of specific foreign aircraft to a more diversified approach that may draw on greater Chinese indigenous inputs and yield greater capabilities.

Putting the Y-20 to Work

Chinese generals and policymakers have now experienced firsthand how useful indigenous long-range air transport capability can be. In late February 2011, the PLAAF used four of its IL-76 transport aircraft to evacuate Chinese citizens from Libya as Qaddafi’s regime fell. The successful Libya evacuation operation likely strengthened the hand of those in the PLAAF who want to procure large, jet-powered transport aircraft to facilitate power projection. There are five strategic reasons why the PLAAF might prefer an indigenously-made aircraft, provided that quality and performance can be assured.

Reason 1: The Y-20 stands to help China create credible long-range military air transport and power projection capabilities commensurate with its growing international interests. China’s current ability to transport large vehicles and other hardware via long-range military airlift is limited. In the short term, the PLA already has long-distance transport options through access to commercial airlines. For higher-intensity missions such as protection/evacuation of Chinese citizens trapped by conflict abroad, however, armored vehicles may be needed. These are too large to be loaded onto most chartered commercial aircraft, which lack loading ramps and would require a purpose-built military transport aircraft.

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As for lifting capacity, in an example of the importance of dimensional and payload “fit,” Russian sources suggest the Y-20 underwent redesign in 2010 to enable it to lift the PLA’s heaviest armored vehicle, the 58 tonne Type 99A2 main battle tank. This would place the Y-20’s lifting capacity around that of the IL-76 MF (60 tonne payload capacity) and perhaps between the IL-76 MF and C-17 Globemaster (77.5 tonne maximum payload), depending on the power of the engines available.

A maximum payload in the 60 tonne range would suggest an aircraft that could fly a substantial distance with smaller payloads such as armored personnel carriers or attack helicopters such as China’s new WZ-10, which is small enough to be carried inside of an IL-76-class transport aircraft. For instance, with its maximum payload of 60 tonnes, the IL-76 MF can fly 4,000 km, but lowering the load to 40 tonnes increases the range to 6,200 km. To be sure, transporting attack helicopters by airlift is difficult and they are maintenance-intensive; without the attendant support equipment and spare parts it is impossible to sustain operations for very long.

If the Y-20 can achieve similar performance levels, it might be able to fly non-stop with payloads of light armored vehicles, helicopters, and other military assets from airfields in Western China into Eastern Africa. For reference, Khartoum, Sudan lies approximately 5,000 km from Kashgar in Western Xinjiang. Of course, depending on season and weather the Y-20 might not be able to make it nonstop to Khartoum with the abovementioned payloads due to performance issues when heading “into the wind” on a westerly course.

Reason 2: The Y-20 offers a multi-use airframe. Any role that the IL-76 airframe can be adapted to (tanker, airborne early warning), the Y-20 airframe could likely also assume. Replacing Russian airframes with indigenously-made ones would be both a point of pride for Beijing and also one of strategic utility, as it would lessen the PLA’s dependence on Russian hardware for key roles.

The Y-20’s airframe could serve as the basis for a capacious aerial tanker suitable for refueling the large J-11 series fighters and eventually the J-20 as well, in addition to the PLA’s smaller tactical aircraft such as the J-10 and eventually the J-31. The fact that Xi’an Aircraft Corporation is responsible for building the PLA’s existing H-6U Badger tankers suggests the company has substantial in-house ability that could quickly be applied to creating a tanker based on the Y-20 airframe.

The Y-20 could also give the PLA an aerial refueling platform with sufficient capacity to refuel large long-range bombers, transports, and maritime patrol aircraft, something that its existing H-6U tankers cannot carry enough fuel to do. In one indicator of what a “tankerized” Y-20 airframe might ultimately be capable of, the Russian Air Force uses the similarly sized IL-78 Midas tanker to refuel a wide range of aircraft, including strategic bombers like the TU-160 Blackjack, patrol aircraft such as the TU-95 Bear, and medium-sized bombers like the TU-22 Backfire.

Reason 3: The Y-20 could reduce China’s reliance on Russian aircraft. An indigenous transport program could eventually end Beijing’s dependence on Moscow to supply IL-76 long-range transports. It could also help to reduce China’s reliance on Russian engines by providing a strong strategic motivation to power the Y-20 with domestically-made jet engines in order to eliminate the potential for foreign engine suppliers to gain a strategic veto over future production or exports of the Y-20 or other large aircraft that China might build. As China potentially gains non-Russian assistance from companies like GE in developing and producing a jet engine for its commercial aircraft projects, it is likely to substantially curtail, and eventually end, its dependence on jet engines imported from Russia. This is a difficult task indeed, but one that Beijing is finally making a major priority, and resourcing accordingly.

A Chinese “Heart” for the Y-20?

Aeroengine development and production remains the pinnacle of aviation technology, one for which only three firms—GE, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls Royce—are on the cutting-edge globally. For the foreseeable future, the Y-20 will use imported engines: most likely the loud, fuel-guzzling Soloviev D-30-K2 (Д-30КП2) engines that power the IL-76.

Closer to 2020, XAC will probably try to use a variant of the CJ1000A (“Yangtze 1000”) domestic high-bypass-ratio turbofan engine that China is developing for the C919 civilian airliner with assistance from Germany’s MTU Aero Engines in the Y-20. Some Internet sources refer to this military variant as the “WS-18.” Such an ambitious timeframe fits with that laid out by Feng Jinzhang, head of R&D for the engine project, who says the goal is for a domestic Chinese civil aeroengine to be mass-produced and in use by 2020.

Civilian aeroengine development can also help military aeroengine development and in China the two sectors will almost certainly be tightly integrated. Multiple factors motivate such civil-military integration, including the reality that it is much easier for civilian entities to obtain such capabilities as foreign design/lifecycle management software, project management tools/systems for multiple parallel critical paths, test cell design, managerial processes, design processes, and revision and document control.

The closeness of civil and military uses for large high-bypass turbofans also raises concerns about unauthorized technology transfers whereby an ostensibly commercial transaction or investment benefits Chinese military modernization efforts directly. China’s development of the WZ-10 attack helicopter’s powerplant exemplifies the speed with which technology shared for commercial purposes can be assimilated into a military program. The WZ-10 program used engine control software that Pratt & Whitney supplied for a “civilian medium helicopter,” but should have known that the ultimate end-use was likely a military application. Indeed, in June 2012, Pratt & Whitney agreed to pay U.S. $75 million in penalties to settle criminal charges brought by the U.S. Department of Justice as a result of the software sale.

Such commonality is also highly relevant for large high-bypass turbofans of the type that the Y-20 would need. Just as Chinese helicopter-maker Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation acquired Pratt & Whitney engine control software under the guise of needing it for a “civilian medium helicopter,” so too will China’s civil airline makers be able to seek foreign turbofans whose technology then ends up in military powerplants.

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The transfer of use would be straightforward, as the same large high-bypass turbofans used in civilian airliners can, with little or no modification, power large military aircraft including tankers, transports, and AWACS. For example, the major U.S. heavy lift aircraft (C-17 and C-5), tankers (KC-10 and KC-135), and AWACS and others (E-3A and P-8A) all either are, or can be, powered by engines that are essentially identical to commercial aircraft powerplants.

Reason 4: China likely desires the freedom to export the Y-20 and future derivatives. If Chinese aircraft makers rely on imported Russian engines, this potentially gives Russia veto power over China’s ability to export planes that might compete with Russian sales. China has already suffered this experience once with Russian opposition to exports of the JF-17 strike fighter, which employs Russian RD-33 turbofans and could compete with the Russian MiG-29 in export markets. If it could achieve the requisite civilian certification, China might ultimately even attempt to export the Y-20 into the global civilian heavy lift market that is currently monopolized by the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine. The U.S., for instance, has sold B-747 freighters to a number of national carriers, including Chinese airlines.

Reason 5: This would enable the PLA to conduct large-scale medium-to-long-distance air assault/parachute insertion operations. Such a capability could improve the PLAAF 15th Airborne Corps’ three airborne divisions’ and related forces ability to engage in everything from domestic disaster relief to internal stability maintenance to troop ramp-ups during military operations. Domestic non-military operations like disaster relief could include the ability to fly into an earthquake-affected area with a short-/deteriorated-field performance type of aircraft carrying large quantities of relief goods or heavy equipment like mobile water treatment equipment. The most recent experiences for the PLA in this regard, e.g., during the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, have highlighted the need for rotary wing and heavy lift resources to handle domestic disasters and thereby win hearts and minds.

Conclusion:

A successful Y-20 prototype flight test will bring China one step closer to joining an elite aerospace club—nations that can indigenously produce intercontinental-range heavy transport aircraft. Yet the test will also expose—once again—remaining shortcomings in China’s domestic aviation industry capabilities and highlight the strategic vulnerabilities that arise when a country must import engines, the heart of any aircraft. Three of the most challenging aspects of an aircraft are its wings, metallurgy/composite materials, and engines. Whereas wing fabrication remains one of the key areas that a top corporation like Boeing rarely outsources, AVIC retained Antonov to help develop wings for—at very least—the ARJ-21.* Whereas metallurgy is an exacting science on which the Soviet Union lavished tremendous resources, China’s expertise in this area still appears incomplete. Finally, aeroengines remain China’s greatest aviation weakness. “Like other aircraft projects, the Y-20 project is still facing the same problem—engines,” states Senior Capt. Li Jie, an expert at China’s Naval Research Institute. “But if we overcome such a knotty problem, the PLA’s ability to project military force on the battlefield or send relief materials to disaster-hit areas would definitely be strengthened.”

Whatever weaknesses it retains today, however, China’s aviation industry is gaining altitude rapidly. The Y-20 test will reaffirm China’s growing prowess as an airframe builder and will almost certainly further motivate Beijing to ensure that China’s aeroengine makers have the resources they need to pursue a domestically-made large aircraft engine. Y-20 development will put China on the cusp of being able to manufacture a wide range of large transport and tanker airframes and to use them to achieve manifold military objectives, such as improving power projection abilities. Ultimately, China will want to be able to use indigenously-built engines to keep them airborne.

The authors gratefully acknowledge helpful comments from three anonymous aviation experts.

Editors Note: We have made a slight change from the original text for clarification.