28 January 2013

The Y-20: China Aviation Milestone Means New Power Projection

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “The Y-20: China Aviation Milestone Means New Power Projection,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 28 January 2013.

Escorted by a J-15 fighter and numbered “20001,” China’s domestically-produced Y-20 transport aircraft successfully completed  its maiden flight on Jan. 26 at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)’s China Flight Test Establishment in Sha’anxi province, remaining airborne for an hour , according to state-run media reports. In an example of selective transparency to boost pride at home and credibility abroad, domestic media were rapidly notified of the Y-20’s test flight (see CCTV broadcast here and here) and Chinese military enthusiasts are energetically welcoming the news.

“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,” the state-run English-language China Daily quoted Qu Renming, a white-collar worker in Beijing, as saying. “The only concern for military fans is when can the Y-20 use our domestically developed engine and enter into service.”

The Y-20’s first flight suggests that China is on the way to joining the U.S., Russia and Ukraine as the fourth nation to independently develop and fly a heavy military transport aircraft. Its development represents a meaningful step toward China being able to develop a more robust ability to project aerial power, both in the form of air transport and aerial refueling. It also offers a large airframe that could eventually provide a foundation for building airborne early warning aircraft and large air tankers capable of supporting long-range strike fighters. Finally, the Y-20 transport could eventually be exported to friendly nations, and perhaps beyond if AVIC can build and sell it for less than the cost of competitors such as the Russian IL-76. The PLAAF currently operates 20 IL-76s, and has reportedly ordered 30 more.

Aircraft Design and Construction Advances

The Y-20 is the third example of a new trend in which AVIC has moved beyond cloning and copying and can now successfully meld aspects of multiple foreign airframes (and technical advice) with domestic designs and improved, domestically-manufactured systems. The J-20 and J-31 were the first two Chinese-made aircraft to make this leap, and now the Y-20 has done so as well.

The Y-20 differs clearly from other heavy transport aircraft like Russia’s Il-76, America’s C-5 and C-17, and Europe’s A400M in fuselage shape, wheels and flap actuators. PLA experts quoted in a story appearing on the English-language website of the People’s Daily claim that the Y-20 outperforms Russia’s Il-76 and say it boasts “Chinese characteristics in supercritical airfoils, integrated avionics, cabin equipment, composite materials and their processing.”  The experts say the plane has three aircrew, a 15-meter height and 47-meter fuselage length, a 66-ton maximum load capacity and a maximum takeoff weight of just over 200 tons. Its capacious cargo hold can “carry the vast majority of combat and support vehicles of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA),” including the PLA’s heaviest tank, the 58-ton Type-99A2. It can transport them even to underdeveloped “airstrips” thanks to its “strong adaptability to [substandard] take-off and landing fields.” This suggests the PLA has carefully noted the ability of the U.S. C-17 to land on rough dirt airstrips and serve forward combat bases in Afghanistan.

Interestingly, two researchers at China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center asserted in 2007 that a “large transport aircraft” with approximately these specifications would have “performance superior to [that of the] IL-76.” Coupled with Xinhua’s 2008 announcement that one-third of China’s initial 60 billion yuan ($9.6 billion) investment in its state-prioritized large aircraft program would be for military transport aircraft, and a CCTV-7 report that the Y-20 would be unveiled by the end of 2009, this suggests that the Y-20’s development was long-planned. Certainly it is a long-term program.

“If everything goes well, the Y-20 will have to undergo a minimum-three-year-long flight test and a minimum-five-year-long comprehensive test period,” the PLA experts cited on the People’s Daily website state. “Therefore, 2017 is the earliest date by which the PLA Air Force will have home-made large transport aircraft.” This would suggest that the 2017-20 period will see the PLA potentially taking simultaneous large-scale deliveries of the Y-20, as well as fighter jets like the J-20, and possibly the J-31, the J-15 and J-16.

Driving Additional Jet Engine Investment

The Y-20’s capabilities are reportedly close to those of Russia’s Il-476, with one important exception: The Y-20’s Russian D-30KP2 engines lack the thrust and efficiency of the Il-476’s PS-90A76 turbofans. In a sign that even China’s aviation Achilles’ heel – engines – is now receiving major resources, China is developing a high-thrust turbofan called the WS-20 to fill this role as part of a major aeroengine resource and technology push. While progress will likely take time, reports suggest China could invest up to 300 billion yuan ($49 billion) in jet engine development by 2035. Acquisition of foreign technology and breakthroughs in recruiting foreign experts could help accelerate China’s jet engine development.

Financial considerations and a belief that Chinese jet engine makers are behind the Russian technical curve will likely motivate Russia to permit transfers of additional jet engines over the next 2-3 years despite the significant risk AVIC will reverse engineer key portions, if not the entire powerplant. Meanwhile, Ukrainian engineers are already readily available, and their Russian counterparts may become increasingly so as Russia moves its aviation contractor headquarters from prime city real estate near aging engineers’ apartments to Zhukovsky Airfield, which lies 45 km from downtown Moscow and is a long commute even under the best of circumstances given the capital’s congested roads.

Future Directions

The last two years have yielded a growing body of evidence that China is enjoying significant success in simultaneously managing multiple advanced aircraft programs. At present, no other nation can—or does—allocate so many personnel and financial resources so rapidly toward achieving national strategic goals.

That said, the Chinese aerospace sector also has a number of key weaknesses that will be exposed if continuing budget increases fail to yield commensurate technical breakthroughs in critical unproven areas, including aeroengines, electronics and avionics.

So far, by exploiting open source study, commercial joint ventures with tech transfer and industrial espionage, China has been able to leapfrog and save costs and time as it closes its technical gap with advanced aerospace power such as the U.S., Russia and certain European countries.

Yet the closer China comes in capability to other advanced aviation powers, the less of a follower’s advantage it will have, raising questions about how much Chinese aerospace expenditures will need to rise in order to have a chance of creating a comprehensive global aerospace power, as opposed to one that makes snazzy airframes, but struggles with critical subsystems such as the engines and electronics. To boot, getting the hardware right is only part of the challenge, since being able to employ it effectively will require millions of man-hours invested in maintenance, training and learning how to integrate platforms with each other to operate in a way that the whole is more powerful than the sum of the parts.

In short, the Y-20 is a point of national pride and a substantial breakthrough for China’s large aircraft programs, but to begin thinking of it as a true military advancement, we need to see a Y-20 undertake a long flight with heavy cargo, then turn around and do the same thing on a return flight. Proof of an aircraft’s reliability and effectiveness lies in real objectives successfully achieved under real world conditions. A long and interesting road lies ahead for the Y-20.

The authors acknowledge support and insights from an anonymous aerospace and defense expert.

For further background, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Limited Liftoff Looming: Y-20 Transport Prepares for 1st Test Flight,” The Diplomat, 8 January 2013.