Chinese Y-20 Airlift Operations Highlight Global Reach: Aid Delivery to Flood-Hit Pakistan is Their Latest Mission

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force’s fast growing fleet of Xi’an Y-20 heavy airlift jets has gained growing international attention as its international presence has expanded, most notably since six of the aircraft were used to rapidly deliver HQ-22 surface to air missile systems to Serbia in April at a time of rising tensions between Belgrade and its NATO neighbours. The aircraft transitioned to the use of indigenous WS-20 engines in late 2020, four years after the class began to be introduced into service using stopgap Russian D-30KP-2 powerplants, and have been praised for providing the PLA with a wide reach comparable to that of the U.S. Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster. Air Force spokesman Senior Colonel Shen Jinke on August 26 stressed regarding the platform’s utility: “wherever and whenever needed, Y-20 can fly there.”

The Y-20 has revolutionised China’s aerial heavy lift capabilities, ending reliance on Soviet Il-76 variants acquired from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and represents the largest military transport in production anywhere in the world today. The aircraft is nevertheless outmatched in size, carrying capacity and endurance by the American C-5 Galaxy and Soviet An-124, which were built from 1968–1989 and 1982–2004 respectively and today serve in the U.S. and Russian air forces exclusively. The state of the U.S. and Russian defence budgets, however, means the possibility of an airlifter larger than the Y-20 returning to production remains limited, while the possibility of China developing a larger successor for truly intercontinental range operations has increasingly been speculated. 

The latest mission of the Y-20 has been the delivery of flood relief aid to Pakistan, with two aircraft landing in Karachi on August 30. Chinese Consul General Zhao Lijian stated at the time that “China and Pakistan have been sharing weal and woe for a long time, reaching out to each other and responding to major challenges such as natural disasters side by side,” with the use of military aircraft for the delivery being highly symbolic. Among the aid delivered were 3,000 tents, with Pakistan Ambassador to China Moin ul Haque stating that “this exemplifies the longstanding tradition of sharing weal and woe between our two countries and two brothers. The people of Pakistan are indeed touched by this generosity and goodwill.” Alongside aid deliveries, the Y-20 has also taken on more diverse roles including providing aerial refuelling to Chinese military aircraft as the Y-20U variant – an area long neglected by the PLA due to its access to widespread military bases and the much higher average endurances of its fighters compared to those in Western air forces. The aircraft have two drogue pods each for refuelling purposes. The Y-20U may potentially prove popular with export clients alongside transport variants, although efforts to market them abroad have so far been limited.