China plans public debut of Y-20 transport plane’s aerial refuelling variant soon, even as it develops another Aerial Early Warning (AEW) version and plans on a third Electronic Warfare Y-20 plane.
"The Y-20 cargo plane has variants like the Y-20 aerial tanker and Y-20 AEW aircraft. I believe that people will see our Y-20 aerial tanker debut on the battlefield in the not too distant future," Teng Hui, commander of an Air Force aviation regiment of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theater Command and a Y-20 pilot, said on CCTV on Monday.
Tang Changhong, chief designer of the Y-20 plane, has hinted at the development of the aircraft’s variants multiple times in the past. Nearly two years ago, the western media reported spotting the Y-20’s tanker variant using satellite images.
“The Y-20 is an excellent basic platform for developing variants because of its large size and long endurance. More variants, including electronic warfare aircraft, are possible,” a Chinese military expert was quoted as saying by Global Times on Tuesday.
Chinese state media have speculated that the Y-20 tanker could replace Ilyushin Il-78 and HU-6 aircraft currently in service with the military.
“When repurposed for aerial refueling, the Y-20 will be able to carry about 90 tons of fuel, similar to the Il-78, and much more than the HU-6's capacity of under 30 tons,” wrote Xi’an-based “Ordnance Industry Science Technology” periodical, in 2019.
Specifications of the AEW variant are not yet publicly available. The Chinese Air Force presently operates domestically developed KJ-200s, KJ-500s, and KJ-2000s that are based on the frame of Russia’s Il-76 cargo plane.
The size of the Y-20 plane is expected to be similar to that of the large KJ-2000. “The new aircraft may use a conformal radar array design to replace the traditional radome, which can increase the size of radars for better detection capabilities of hostile stealth planes,” said a military analyst.