Key Point: The Y-20 could be a game-changer.
In some ways, the Y-20 and its possible successors may prove more important to projecting China’s military and political might than attention-grabbing new stealth fighters and aircraft carriers. The latter systems only perform at full potential when combatting hi-tech enemies in a high-intensity conflict—or deterring one.
As China rises to the status of a global superpower, it is looking to acquire assets on a scale possessed previously only found operated by the United States: a huge fleet of gigantic, globe-spanning cargo planes. Indeed, its new Y-20 “Chubby Girl” transport is the largest aircraft in production since the U.S. completed production of the C-17.
The U.S. Air Force currently operates nearly six hundred C-130 Hercules, C-17 Globemaster and C-5 Galaxy cargo planes. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force only as around 145 transports according to figures from Flight Global, of which 43 are Y-7s only capable of lifting six tons. For global ‘strategic’ lift capability, the PLAAF relies on twenty-two Il-76MD jets purchased from Russia which can lug 53 tons of cargo in their portly holds. For example, after the outbreak of civil war in Libya in 2011, the PLAAF mustered four Il-76s to evacuate its citizens.
Today, China increasingly needs to sustain military deployments to Africa as well as bases and allies in the Indian and Pacific Ocean. But the desire for strategic airlift capability can also be explained by factors much closer to home. After the devastating 2005 earthquake in Sichuan, the PLAAF struggled to deploy cargo planes to the disaster zone.
Just a year later, the Xi’an Aircraft Corporation began work on a new strategic airlifter. Previously, nearly all Chinese transports were clones or imports of Soviet designs, and Xi’an indeed turned to the Antonov design bureau for assistance. The Ukrainian company offered a scaled-up, jet-powered derivative of its An-70 turbobrop transport. The design had to be further revised, however, as China developed a heavier 64-ton Type 99A main battle-tank.