China’s air force used its latest flight near Taiwan to show off a new capability

A Chinese Y-20 airlifter
A Chinese Y-20 airlifter at the Zhuhai air show, October 31, 2016.

  • A variant of the Y-20 can refuel fighter jets and bombers mid-air, expanding the PLA Air Force’s operational range.
  • Its debut outing comes after US lawmakers vow “rock-solid” support for Taipei in a surprise visit to the island.

An oil tanker aircraft joined mainland China’s air patrol near Taiwan for the first time on Sunday, according to the island’s defence ministry, a move an analyst said was to show the PLA’s boosted attack ability.

The Y-20 aerial refuelling aircraft was sent with 26 military planes — 18 fighter jets, five nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, two KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft and a Y-9 transport aircraft — into Taiwan’s air-defence identification zone (ADIZ), prompting Taipei to scramble fighter jets and deploy missile systems for monitoring.

The H-6 bombers and six of the fighter jets flew south of Taiwan into the Bashi Channel separating Taiwan from the Philippines before steering out into the Pacific and returning to the mainland, according to a map provided by the Taiwanese defence ministry.

Beijing has been sending patrols into the island’s ADIZ on almost a daily basis since late September last year. The ADIZ is not the same as Taiwan’s territorial air space but a self-declared space that is monitored for security purposes.

China Y-20 aerial refueling aircraft
A Chinese Y-20 aerial-refueling variant.

The Y-20 is a Chinese domestically developed large cargo plane. The aerial tanker variant of the Y-20 can refuel J-20 fighter jets and H-6 bombers mid-air using the probe-and-drogue refuelling method, which could expand the operational range of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force to more than 8,000 km (4,970 miles) and combat radius to 3,000 km, according to a Global Times report.

It is widely expected that the tanker variant of the Y-20 will work together with — and eventually replace — the PLA’s few imported Il-78 tankers and the domestically developed but less capable HU-6, according to the report.

Military website reported in February that serial production of the Y-20 oil tanker variant had begun, citing satellite imagery.

Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator, said the Y-20 oil tanker variant could help Beijing prepare for military actions related to Taiwan.

“Oil tankers are important to refuel fighters and bombers during an attack mission, or can serve as the fuel backup for even longer operations into the Western Pacific,” Song said. “As the Y-20 oil tanker variant is an indigenous aircraft, it means China’s refuelling abilities can be fully guaranteed and no longer reliant on other countries.”

However, the four-engine Y-20 is still powered by Russian turbofan engines. The PLA is developing its WS-20 high-bypass turbofan for the Y-20 family, although the engine is not expected to enter production before 2024.

Relations between Beijing and Taipei further deteriorated after several US lawmakers vowed “rock-solid” support for Taipei in a surprise one-day visit to the island on Friday, which drew immediate criticism from Beijing the same day.

Taiwan has been self-ruled since the two sides split during a civil war in 1949, but mainland China considers the island part of its own territory. Beijing said it would use military means to reunify with the island if necessary.

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