An artist’s concept appeared in a Chinese publication has sparked fresh interest amongst defense enthusiasts as it depicted the PLAAF Y-20 transport aircraft acting as a tanker, topping off the tanks of two J-20 stealth fighters and sporting new WS-20 turbofan engines.
Experts believe that China is in desperate need of a tanker fleet, which it requires for its ambitions to become a major power in the west pacific. Currently, Beijing operates roughly about 13-15 mid-air refueling tankers, which include 3 Russian made Il-78 strategic tankers and a squadron of about 10 indigenously manufactured H-6 bombers converted to tanker roles. The H-6 is a license-built copy of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 bomber.
In contrast, the U.S. Air Force boasts a fleet of approximately 500 tanker aircraft, most of them being the KC-135s.
The tanker seen in the image sports the new WS-20 turbofan engines, however, the actual initial variants are to fly with the older, less powerful engines that limit its performance. The WS-20 is seen as an essential requirement to make the aircraft achieve its maximum cargo-carrying capacity of 66 tons.
Tankers help in expanding the reach of fighters and bomber planes and are particularly significant in the western Pacific, where the possible fight zones can be a thousand miles or more from significant landmasses and their bigger airfields.
China’s vast infrastructure of mainland air bases and its island outposts do currently aid in its roles for the most probable fights fought in its near periphery, mainly against Taiwan or the South and East China seas.
As David Axe writing for the Forbes says – a “three-point” tanker conversion of the Y-20—with reliable refueling baskets under its fuselage and both wings—already has flown. Teng Hui, a Y-20 pilot and commander of a regiment in the PLAAF’s Western Theater Command told China Central Television in February, “I believe that people will see our Y-20 aerial tanker debut on the battlefield in the not too distant future”.
To compare, the IL-78 strategic tankers can offload about 100 tons of fuel per sortie, roughly equivalent to the KC-135, and the H-6 tankers can only offload about 20 tons per sortie. However, the status of the fuel carrying capacity of the Y-20U is unconfirmed, especially when fitted with better WS-20 engines.
The Y-20 can be somewhat compared to the American C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift transport aircraft but with lesser capacity. For now, it flies with the Russian-made D-30 low-bypass engines which have been termed as “obsolete 1960- technology” by aviation expert Bill Sweetman.
According to Axe, the WS20 could transform the Y-20 into a truly modern strategic airlifted. The same engine could make the Y-20U a truly modern strategic tanker.