China’s development of a new aerial refueler, known as the Y-20U, would significantly boost the PLA Air Force’s capability to carry out long-range raids. This could have ominous implications not only for India but also for the whole of the Indo-Pacific.
A variant of China’s Y-20 military transport aircraft, Y-20U has a maximum take-off weight of 220 tons, and the refueling version is expected to be able to carry up to 60 tons of fuel, more than three times the maximum capacity of the indigenous H-6U, which is currently used for air-to-air refueling.
The new Y-20U is fitted with three refueling points, compared to two on the H-6U that China has at the moment.
China’s PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is believed to have roughly 24 Xian H-6Us, as well as three Il-78 refueling aircraft imported from Ukraine.
With additional specifications, the new refueling tanker aircraft will significantly boost the PLA Air Force’s long-range raid capability and substantially extend the combat radius of its aircraft, it is believed.
In military terms, combat radius refers to the maximum distance a ship, aircraft, or vehicle can travel away from its base along a given course, with normal load, and return without refueling.
However, one round of aerial refueling is expected to widen the combat radius of China’s H-6N bombers by 25 to 30 percent, boost that of its J-8 and J-10 fighters by 30 to 40 percent, and give its Y-9 transport planes a 100 percent increase in combat radius.
PLAAF’s Operational Range To Expand With Y-20U
Chinese experts say that combinations of the Y-20 aerial tanker with the likes of the J-20 fighter jet and H-6N strategic bomber can significantly expand the operational range of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force and defend China against military aggression from West Pacific.
Teng Hui, commander of an Air Force aviation regiment of the PLA Western Theatre Command and Y-20 pilot has been quoted by the Chinese media to have said that “The Y-20 cargo plane has variants like the Y-20 aerial tanker and Y-20 aerial early warning aircraft. I believe that people will see our Y-20 aerial tanker debut on the battlefield in the not too distant future.”
Upon receiving aerial refueling from the Y-20 aerial tanker, the J-20 can extend its range to more than 10,000 kilometers and combat radius to more than 3,000 kilometers, the Chinese analysts point out.
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) June 14, 2020
They add that the combination of the Y-20 tanker variant and the J-20 can cover the entire first and second island chains, becoming the PLA Air Force’s sharpest spear in both attack and defense.
The Chinese also believe that the Y-20 tanker version can refuel not only tactical warplanes like the J-20 but also strategic ones like the aerial refuel-capable variant of the H-6 bomber.
At the moment, though airbases in the Chinese mainland and island outposts are good enough to project its airpower, air-tankers will further augment this power in the western Indo-Pacific, where the likely battle zones can be a thousand miles or more from major landmasses and their large airfields.
The United States, China’s principal rival in the region, has around 500 strategic tankers, most of them KC-135s.
Implications For India
The Indian Air Force refers to the refueling tankers as MARS (Mid Air Refuelling System). The IAF acquired its first air refueller, the Russian IL-78, in 2003. It currently operates six such aircraft.
The IL-78 is a three-point tanker, which can fuel three fighter jets simultaneously. It has a total fuel carrying capacity of about 110 tons and can refuel six to eight aircraft per mission.
But the IAF needs much more. The reasons cited are that for a country of India’s size, you must have the capability for refueling.
As Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retired) says, “The Chinese will have 50 air-refuellers; the IAF at least deserves a sufficient number of such aircraft. If they are making more and more refuellers, then we must build our capacities too.”
Refueling is a tactical necessity for India while dealing with even Pakistan in the sense that with many of its fighter aircraft based at Thanjavur in the deep south, Chabua in Assam and Pune in western India, well away from PAF reach, IAF interceptors and fighter bombers can join a battle at any frontline at a few hours’ notice, if refueled mid-air.
— India in France (@Indian_Embassy) May 5, 2021
India, at the moment, is thinking of leasing foreign mid-air refueling aircraft rather than buying them outright. For this purpose, the IAF will adopt a new methodology for the process based on the number of hours of availability per year as criteria, according to senior defense officials.
Reportedly, the IAF has sought financial quotes for leasing from American aviation giant Boeing and the European aerospace major Airbus.
It is said that the IAF has requested quotes for two mid-air refuellers from Airbus and one from Boeing.
Speculations are that on the basis of the experience of the three leased tankers, the IAF might eventually go in for a large order of six refuellers.
The A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) aircraft is a derivative of the twin-engine A330 passenger aircraft of Airbus, whereas the KC-46 tanker is a derivative of the Boeing 767 passenger jet.
The A330 has a ferry range of 14,800 kilometers.
It may be noted that the A330 refuellers of France and the UAE Air force have been used to ferry the 17 Rafale fighters that India has already transported to the Ambala base from Merignac-Bordeaux airbase in France since July 2020. Three more are scheduled to land in India by Thursday, taking the total number of IAF Rafales to 20.
The French manufacturer Dassault will deliver all the 36 Rafales that India purchased by the latter half of the year.