China is developing an aerial refueling version of the Y-20 strategic airlifter aircraft after rejecting a proposal to buy more Russian Il-78 tankers due to their high asking price.
A tanker variant for the Y-20 is now under development, an unnamed expert told Global Times newspaper. Recent satellite imagery reportedly sighted a prototype aerial refueling version of the Y-20 in Yanliang Airport in Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
China is in urgent need of an aerial refueling tanker that has a larger fuel capacity than the HU-6, a tanker developed from the H-6 bomber.
The J-20, China's most advanced stealth fighter jet, is able to receive aerial refueling, China Central Television (CCTV) reported earlier this month. Several other aircraft in the Chinese air force such as the J-11 and the Su-35 are capable of in-flight refueling.
China needs aerial refueling capability to extend the range of its fighter fleet as it is engaged in a maritime dispute with Japan, South Korea and the United States over control of the South China Sea.
Although China also operates a few Russian II-78 tankers, which are much larger than the HU-6, Russia was reluctant to sell more at a reasonable price, leading China to decide to develop its own large tanker, the expert said.
China's Y-20, a domestically made 200 ton-class large multi-purpose transport aircraft, is of similar size to the Russian Il-76 transport aircraft, on which the Il-78 is based, he said.
In addition to the aerial refueling version, China could develop an early warning aircraft based on the Y-20.