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Y-20 gives air power a push (2)

(China Daily)

07:04, January 28, 2013

An important addition

Sources said the aircraft began to be developed in the early 1990s. In 2006 it was listed in a national mid- and long-term technological development plan. In 2009, a senior executive at the Aviation Industry Corp of China told Chinese media the design of a "200-ton military aircraft" had been completed and production of prototypes had begun.

Photos of the Y-20 began to circulate on Chinese military websites on Dec 24, leading to speculation that the air freighter would soon conduct its first test flight.

Three days later, Yang Yujun, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, confirmed at a news conference that China is "developing a large transport aircraft on our own to improve the capability of air transport".

Once in service, the Y-20 will significantly strengthen the PLA’s long-range transport capability, which has been plagued for many years by the absence of a domestically developed strategic air freighter.

The PLA air force now has a transport fleet that mainly consists of the Y-7, the Y-8 and their variants.

The Y-7 is designed and made based on the Soviet-designed Antonov An-24 series, and the Y-8 is based on the Antonov An-12. Both have relatively light payloads and cannot carry heavy-duty armored vehicles and tanks.

There is also an unknown but presumably small number of Ilyushin Il-76 large air freighters in the air force, enabling the PLA to conduct strategic transport and disaster-relief missions.

In 2008, large transport aircraft from the PLA air force took part in rescue and relief missions after a devastating earthquake in Southwest China. Three years later, the air force also sent four Ilyushin Il-76s to strife-torn Libya to rescue stranded Chinese citizens.

The missions have proven the importance of long-range aircraft and also exposed the embarrassing fact that China still lacks enough strategic air freighters, military experts said.

"The Ilyushin Il-76 was developed by the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and has largely lagged behind in terms of technology and functions, but China has no other choice but to continue buying it," Peng Yue, a military observer, wrote in Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong-based newspaper. He noted that the unreliable supply of Ilyushin Il-76 from Russia has constrained China’s production of a large, airborne early-warning and control system, which is installed on a modified Ilyushin IL-76 airframe.

Compared with the Russian airplane, the Y-20 is much more technically advanced in almost all areas, but due to the comparatively conservative aerodynamic design and the lack of a domestically developed engine, it still cannot rival the US’ Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, experts said.

"The United States Air Force has more than 350 large air freighters with a minimum payload of 50 tons, while the Russian Air Force has 368 strategic air freighters. I think the biggest gap between the PLA and them in terms of conventional arsenal lies in the strategic transport capability," Peng said.

He said the Y-20 will not only improve the Chinese military’s power projection and rapid deployment capabilities but also provide a reliable platform for domestically developed early warning and control, aerial refueling, and anti-submarine aircraft.

"The strategic importance of the Y-20 is even bigger than the J-20 stealth fighter jet and the aircraft carrier," he said.

Carrying a payload of up to 55 tons, the Y-20 is able of flying to destinations 4,500 km away from China, such as Guam in the western Pacific Ocean or Egypt, and if accompanied by a tanker aircraft it can even fly 9,600 km to Angola in southern Africa or Sydney in Australia, military analysts said.

"Our air force needs at least 100 strategic air freighters such as the Y-20 because transporting a brigade combat group alone needs 80 to 100 large air freighters," Wang at Aerospace Knowledge said. "If the PLA air force has 300 Y-20s, then its strategic transport capability will compete with that of the US air force."

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