Critics say China’s controversial new Y-20 military transport jet looks a lot like the U.S. Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster transport jet, and they say that’s because Chinese hackers stole thousands of files relating to the C-17 during “that” great hack.
The PLA Air Force’s Y-20 military transport jet is starting to mature into a reliable heavy-lift airplane, and once it gets its long-awaited WS-20 jet engines, it might even deliver performance comparable to that of the U.S.’ slightly larger C-17 Globemaster III. Comparing the two giants is significant because the U.S. claims Chinese hackers stole a lot of data relating to the C-17 years before the Y-20 first flew.
U.S. investigators in 2014 helped secure the conviction of a Chinese national living in Canada — a businessman called Su Bin — who worked with Chinese hackers to steal 630,000 files related to the C-17. This was part of the same hacking operation that also saw the theft of data related to the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighter programs. Su Bin was convicted, fined, and sentenced to 46 months in prison for working from 2008 to 2014 to steal the data from U.S. defense contractors.
There are some striking outward similarities between the Y-20 and the C-17, but it is unclear how similar the internal parts and components of these planes are. The C-17 is smaller than the U.S. Air Force’s massive C-5 Galaxy. Starting service in 1995, the 53-meter-long C-17 is a much newer design than the 75-meter-long C-5, which was introduced to service in 1970. Although the C-17 has a smaller cargo capacity than the C-5, it provides much better deployment flexibility, as its sturdy design and powerful engines allow it to land and take off from rough and short runways. The U.S. Air Force operates 279 C-17s, compared to 131 C-5s.
At 47 meters in length, the Y-20 is 6 meters shorter than the C-17, and its 45-meter wingspan is seven meters shorter than the C-17’s 52-meter wingspan. Its payload capacity is 11.34 tons less than the 72.6 tons that the C-17 can carry. One of the reasons why the Y-20 is smaller than the C-17 is probably because China does not have access to the powerful jet engines that power the C-17. The Y-20 is built around four Russian-made Soloviev D-30 engines. Each of these turbofan engines can only produce around 26,000 pounds of thrust, compared to the 40,000 pounds of thrust produced by each of the four Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 engines that power the C-17.
This lack of thrust limits the size and load capacity of the Y-20, and it also means the airplane requires a long runway to land on and take off from. China plans to solve this problem by replacing the Russian engines with its own Shenyang WS-20 engines, but these long-awaited engines are still in development.
China claims that once the Y-20 gets its WS-20 engines, it will be able to carry one of the PLA’s main battle tanks, the 55-ton T99. This would be a similar capability to that of the C-17, which can carry one U.S. main battle tank, the 62-ton M1 Abrams tank.
Once the Y-20 becomes capable of airlifting tanks to combat zones, it would change Taiwan’s plans to defend itself against a Chinese invasion force. Inserting tanks via air onto Taiwanese soil would be much faster and less risky than doing so via landing ships, although it would require the PLA to establish a safe air corridor to a landing strip that’s long enough and smooth enough for a fully loaded Y-20.
To create such a safe air bridge, the PLA would have to get a foothold that contains suitable terrain, and also destroy every air-defense unit on the route the Y-20 would have to take. To counter such a scenario, Taiwan could create a plan that would ensure there’s at least one defender with at least a shoulder-fired anti-air missile in position to shoot down such a tank-carrying plane before it can land on Taiwanese soil.
The PLA Air Force is currently developing a version of the Y-20 into China’s first ever air tanker, the YU-20. The YU-20 is sometimes called the YY-20 and was first introduced in August of last year. It has since proven itself capable of refueling PLAAF warplanes in the skies around Taiwan. This plane enables China to greatly extend the time that PLAAF warplanes can spend in the air, while also extending their strike ranges.
China’s CCTV news outlet reported on Thursday January 26 that Beijing plans to create more variants of the Y-20. These variants would include strategic early warning aircraft, command and control planes, electronic warfare planes, and possibly even drone-carrier planes. The Y-20 might also be made longer to give it a larger cargo space and increased fuel capacity.
In conclusion, the Y-20 is a significant breakthrough in China’s ability to build and operate large, heavy-lift airplanes. It gives the PLA Air Force the ability to transport large numbers of troops, munitions, supplies and military vehicles at high speed to forward combat areas.