New Xi’an Y-20U airborne tanker units from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force have begun combat readiness training, marking an important milestone in the country’s military modernisation efforts with the potential to seriously extend the reach of Chinese combat aircraft in to the East and South China Seas. The lack of tankers had long been a major outstanding weakness of the PLA Air Force, which largely stemmed from its defensive orientation and focus on guarding domestic airspace. Preceding the Y-20U’s induction, the PLA tanker fleet was comprised solely of three Russian Il-78M jets and a number of H-6 bomber airframes converted for aerial refuelling. The issue of a lack of tankers was largely mitigated, however, by the very high composition of heavy fighters in the PLA fleet, which deploys more heavyweight classes than any other air force by a considerable margin. With heavyweights having much higher endurances than light or medium weight jets, which form the bulk of Western air forces, the need for aerial refuelling was much lower in the PLA fleet, with fighters such as the J-20 and Su-35 having much longer ranges than any fielded in the Western world.
The Y-20U has two drogue pods allowing probe refuelling of combat jets in the air. The design is based on the Y-20 heavy transport, which is the largest transport aircraft in production anywhere in the world today and first entered service in July 2016. The aircraft are powered by indigenous WS-20 engines, and have a significant range and capacity as demonstrated by their deployment to Europe in April to deliver HQ-22 air defence systems to Serbia. Tanker variants are estimated to carry 90 tons of fuel. The aircraft’s high use of composite materials, and use of 3D printing to accelerate development and reduce manufacturing costs, have set it apart from rival designs developed overseas in its sophistication. The Y-20’s closest foreign equivalents are the Russian Il-76 and American C-17, and the program’s success has fuelled speculation that a much larger class of transport aircraft may be under development.