By David Axe
The Chinese air force needs a strategic refueling tanker—badly. And it apparently is working hard to develop one. If and when it succeeds, this is what that tanker might look like.
Most strikingly, the Y-20U tanker in the illustration boasts modern turbofan engines. In reality, the initial version of the tanker is likely to fly with older, less powerful engines that could limit its performance.
Tankers help to extend the flying range of fighters and other warplanes. They’re especially important in the western Pacific, where the likely battle zones can be a thousand miles or more from major landmasses and their large airfields.
China’s vast infrastructure of mainland air bases—not to mention its dozen or so major island outposts—mitigate the range penalty resulting from the PLAAF’s lack of large tankers. Especially for any wars, China might fight along its periphery, such as in Taiwan or the China Seas.
But to project air power deeper into the Pacific Ocean, the Chinese air force needs tankers.
The U.S. military has around 500 strategic tankers, most of them KC-135s. The Chinese air force, by contrast, possesses just three Russian-made Il-78 strategic tankers as well as potentially 10 or so tanker-conversions of the H-6 medium bomber.
The Il-78s each can offload up to 100 tons of fuel per mission, making them roughly equivalent to a KC-135. An H-6U by contrast can offload fewer than 20 tons of gas. It’s not clear how much fuel a Y-20U might carry.
A “three-point” tanker conversion of the Y-20—with reliable refueling baskets under its fuselage and both wings—already has flown. “I believe that people will see our Y-20 aerial tanker debut on the battlefield in the not too distant future,” Teng Hui, a Y-20 pilot, and commander of a regiment in the PLAAF’s Western Theater Command told China Central Television in February.
The early-model Y-20U almost certainly will fly with the same Russian-made D30 low-bypass engines that power the basic Y-20. But the D30 with its 21,000 pounds of thrust is “obsolete 1960s-technology,” according to aviation expert Bill Sweetman.
That obviously has some bearing on the Y-20U’s capabilities.
Chinese industry for years has been trying to perfect the WS20, a copy of the American F101 moderate-bypass engine. The Y-20 could be first in line to get the new motors.
The F101 hardly is new—it has powered the B-1 bomber since the 1970s—but it produces more than 27,000 pounds of thrust, making it much more powerful than the D-30 is.
The WS20 could transform the Y-20 into a truly modern strategic airlifter. The same engine could make the Y-20U a truly modern strategic tanker.