China Debates Airlift Options
TAIPEI — China’s military has struggled to meet its air mobility and aerial refueling demands as missions have expanded and fighter jets have been added with air refueling capabilities.
Air transports may be needed to support China’s declared plans to invade Taiwan should the island declare independence, and shortcomings were highlighted when the military labored to provide disaster relief following the May 12 Sichuan earthquake.
At present, China’s military lacks the ability to transport and sustain more than a division of combat troops. China only has 24 Il-76 transports and eight H-6 refuelers.
China also has about 400 smaller transports, mostly aging turboprop Shaanxi Y-7 and Y-8 transports. Not everyone agrees China needs new transports just to take Taiwan.
“I don’t think they need much at all in terms of air cargo and air refuelers if it was for Taiwan,” said Larry Wortzel, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
“Their C4ISR with the Sovietbuilt aircraft and the Y-8s has enough loiter time to give them 48 hours of persistent coverage in a 1,500 nautical mile radius.” Assuming control of the airspace, the military can rely on the commercial transport fleet to move troops if Taiwan airfields are secured, he said.
However, China’s needs are much broader than just Taiwan. In its western regions, China has border disputes with India and contends with ethnic tensions. Its increasing military presence and investments in Africa also will challenge China’s airlift capabilities.
In the past five years, acquiring new cargo aircraft has been a nightmare. China and Russia have been involved in prolonged negotiations for 34 Ilyushin Il-76 Candid medium-range transports and Il-78 Midas aerial refueling tankers. The new aircraft were for the planned 4th Air Force Air Division. One Il-76 was to be refitted into an airborne warning and control system platform.
In 2005, China signed a $1.5 billion contract with the Russian arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, for the aircraft, but in 2006 the contract was suspended after the Chkalov Aircraft Production Association in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, rejected the price and refused to sign. China also objected that the contract required it to pay for part of the refurbishment of the assembly plant. There have been reports the facility has been in disrepair since the end of the Cold War.
China protested the decision, and Russia is now offering Russian-based production facilities in Ulyanovsk to fill the order.
To help resolve the problem, Chkalov Aircraft was acquired by Russia’s United Aircraft in 2007. Production of a new Il-76 is expected to begin in 2011, said Andrei Chang, China military specialist with the Kanwa Information Center.
In September, Russian officials announced a new contract would be signed in November, but there could be a snag. China is also discussing options with Ukraine’s Antonov Aircraft on a joint design based on the An-70 for possible co-production, Chang said. The An70 is a four-engine medium-range transport plane that can carry 100,000 pounds of cargo or 300 troops. The Antonov option would help give China the capability of building a large airlifter for the military.
Also, China Aviation Industry Corp. (AVIC) is working on an aircraft modeled after the Boeing C-17 Globemaster transport. AVIC’s design, revealed in 2007, is slightly altered with a similar C-17 fuselage and tail, but a different wing and engine-mount.
In February, U.S. federal officials arrested a former Boeing engineer, Greg Chung, for spying for China. He is accused of selling secrets on the C-17, B-1 bomber, space shuttle and Delta IV space launcher.
U.S. authorities said Chung, born in China and a naturalized U.S. citizen, began spying for China in 1979. In one letter to a Chinese contact, Chung described his need to help the “motherland.” Chung retired from Boeing in 2002 but returned as a contractor until 2006. His trial has been set for May 2009.
China is also working on an improved Shaanxi Y-8. In 2002 and 2005, China’s Shaanxi Aircraft Industry revealed a model of the Y9 transport aircraft believed to be a stretched version of the Y-8. The new aircraft will have a maximum payload of 40,000 pounds or 100 troops. It is being compared to the Lockheed C-130 transport.
Due to technical problems, production has been pushed back from 2007 to 2009 and could continue to be delayed.