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Y-20 gives air power a push

By Zhao Lei | China Daily | Updated: 2013-01-28 02:38

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."

Opportunities abound

In addition to its military implications, the Y-20 will bring many other benefits to China, said Liang Fang, a professor of strategy at the PLA National Defense University.

"Along with the expansion of our national interest, the heavy air freighters will ensure that we are able to safeguard our interests overseas," she said. "With them, we can transport our people or large equipment to farther destinations and retrieve them."

Du Wenlong, a senior researcher for the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, said: "The development of heavy transport aircraft, which is a cutting-edge equipment featuring advanced technology, will inject momentum to many related fields such as material science, engine research and manufacturing sectors, thus eventually upgrading the entire aviation industry of China."

Chinese military fans are also excited about the test flight of the Y-20.

"Good news has come again and again over the past two months. First we heard about the test flight of the J-31 stealth fighter jet, then the landing and takeoff of the J-15 on our aircraft carrier, and now we embrace the birth of the Y-20," said Qu Renming, a white-collar worker in Beijing. "The only concern for military fans is when can the Y-20 use our domestically developed engine and enter into service."

Wang added: "I think the test flights and other experiments with the Y-20 will last at least two years. And after the tests are finished, at least 10 aircraft will be manufactured each year."

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