Eight years after its maiden flight, the Xian Y-20 strategic transport is transforming Beijing’s airlift capabilities, as it also looks set to take on additional roles.

The first flight from Yanliang air base on 26 January 2013 came just weeks after Beijing confirmed the type’s existence, which followed the emergence of images of the new four-engined jet on Chinese social media.

Xian Y-20

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Y-20 made its public debut at Airshow China in October 2016, and appeared in the show’s flying display

The baseline Y-20A has completed testing and it is believed that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) operates 10-15 examples, following the aircraft’s induction into service in July 2016.

The Y-20 has gone on to enjoy considerable prominence in China, with appearances at Airshow China in Zhuhai, and regular exposure on official Chinese defence sites. Early in the Coronavirus pandemic, Y-20s were dispatched with relief supplies to the city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first identified.

In its 2020 report to Congress about Chinese defence developments, the US Department of Defense (DoD) noted that Beijing has done considerable work with dropping airborne troops from the Y-20.

More recently, on 25 December 2020, a Y-20 landed on Fiery Cross reef, one of the disputed atolls in the South China Sea where Beijing has built a runway. The mission was apparently intended to show off Beijing’s long reach in the event of a South China Sea contingency. 

Although the Y-20 allows the PLAAF to diversify from the Russian-built Ilyushin Il-76 it uses in the heavy transport role, a key weakness remain its engines. Production examples of the Y-20 are powered by four Soloviev D-30KP-2s, although an indigenous high bypass engine, the Shenyang WS-20, is in development.

Chinese social media suggests that Y-20 flight testing with the WS-20 is underway, but clear photographic evidence of this has yet to emerge. The WS-20-powered Y-20 is tentatively designated the Y-20B.

Y-20s in early 2021

Source: Chinese social media

Y-20s deployed in 2020 to support Beijing’s response to the coronavirus pandemic

Curiously, at Airshow China in 2016 Avic had a model of a prospective commercial variant of the Y-20, the Y20F-100, that it said was in the preliminary research stage. The engines were clearly larger than on baseline Y-20s then in service, but Avic declined to comment on this detail, and did not promote the commercial version of the aircraft at the 2018 show.

The Y-20 is also seen as rectifying one of the PLAAF’s more prominent shortfalls: the lack of dedicated tanker assets.

Currently the PLAAF’s air-to-air tanking mission is conducted by roughly 24 Xian H-6Us and a trio of Il-78s obtained from Ukraine. It is believed the tanker version of the Y-20, the Y-20U, will replace both of these types.

Photographs understood to be of the Y-20U have appeared on Chinese social media, but confirmed images or video of it refuelling other aircraft have yet to emerge. It is believed that the aircraft will have hose-and-drogue refuelling pods beneath each wing for refuelling fighters. It will also be equipped with a refuelling point along its centreline for refuelling larger aircraft such as the H-6N bomber – the first H-6 variant to feature an air-to-air refuelling probe.

In its 2020 report, the US DoD said that the Y-20 tanker will improve the PLAAF’s ability to operate beyond the so-called ‘First Island Chain’ from bases in China.

There is also considerable speculation around the KJ-3000, the tentative designation of the airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) variant of the Y-20.

The most capable AEW&C platform in the PLAAF inventory is now the KJ-2000, comprising an Il-76 airframe with a non-rotating, three-sided active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar produced by China Electronics Technology Group.

It is believed that this asset will eventually be replaced by an AESA-equipped KJ-3000. Imagery of this development have yet to appear, although the 2020s could see it emerge, along with other variants of the Y-20.