China Expanding Air Mobile Capabilities
By WENDELL MINNICK TAIPEI — After decades of largely ignoring fixed-wing military cargo aircraft, China now appears eager to expand with new aircraft and upgrades to older airframes.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) operates 18 Ilyushin II-76 heavy transports, about 40 Shaanxi Y-8 medium transports and a small number of X’ian Y-7 and Y-5 light transports. These are roughly the same number of aircraft the PLAAF was operating a decade ago and the lack of interest in air mobility is a “bit puzzling” given China’s supposed focus on a Taiwan contingency, said Roger Cliff, a China military analyst with the Project 2049 Institute.
Any increase in the number of transports “would be an indication that they are serious about acquiring the capability to actually invade Taiwan,” he said.
China has about 1,400 commercial airliners, which could be used for transporting troops and cargo, but they are not as rugged as military airlifters and cannot be used for transporting vehicles, Cliff said. However, not all military missions suggest damaged runways, said Richard Fisher, an analyst for the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.
“While their use presupposes the capture of a large airfield plus its cargo handling equipment, in a Taiwan scenario this number of cargo transports could perform a vital early logistic support mission for invading PLA forces,” Fisher said.
Beyond Taiwan, China has a variety of other contingencies that require a strong airlift capability, including the South China Sea, India, Vietnam, the Korean Peninsula, and counterinsurgency missions in Tibet and Xinjiang. It also has to support a growing list of allies in Africa and the Middle East who rely on inexpensive Chinese arms.
Earlier this year, Beijing reportedly considered sending arms shipments to shore up the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi, but “had to quickly revise the scheme whereby it could use arms already sold to neighboring Algeria to rearm Gadhafi, that would later be replenished,” Fisher said.
The PLAAF appears to be taking the deficiency seriously. There are a number of new platform programs designed to address the problem.
■ The Shaanxi Aircraft Corp. is testing a long-awaited variant of the Y-9 medium transport with new engines, glass cockpit and a lift capacity allowing it to carry a ZBD-03 tracked airborne infantry fighting vehicle or a low-weight ZBD-09 eightwheel-drive armored personnel carrier, Fisher said.
This variant is possibly a codevelopment with the Russian aerospace company Antonov, “but it is not clear when it will be in production,” Cliff said.
■ The X’ian Aircraft Industry Corp. is building the new four-engine turbofan Y-20 transport with a 60-ton capacity. The engines will either be Russian Soloviev D-30 turbofans that also power the Il-76 or a coproduced version of this turbofan, Fisher said. Other options include a reported high-bypass development of the Shenyang WS-20 turbofan, possibly called the “SF-A,” to improve efficiency, he said.
“While intended for the COMAC C-919 civil transport, the thrust target for this engine would be the same for the new X’ian four-engine transport,” Fisher said.
■ There are unconfirmed reports the PLAAF continues to express interest in additional Russian built Il-76 and Il-78 tankers, as well as the Antonov An-124. “Should the An-70 ever begin production, the Ukraine could be expected to mount a major sales effort in Beijing,” Fisher said.
■ China is also pushing to end the European Union’s 1980 arms embargo. If so, the PLAAF is expected to pursue the Airbus A-400 military transport.
■ There are also concerns the U.S. could lift its embargo on China as relations improve if the Taiwan issue is resolved. China might be hesitant to procure U.S. airlifters, however, out of fear another embargo could be reinstituted. China has struggled to maintain 20 Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters procured during the 1980s.
■ China is also engaged in the research and development of aerostats and airships for short-range, heavy-lift missions, particularly over mountainous terrain and large bodies of water.
More than 30 Chinese aerospace research institutes and companies have programs dedicated to the study of lighterthan-air platforms for commercial and military applications.
Many of these programs are expected to reach fruition by 2020. The new airlift capability will allow the Chinese military to field medium-weight airmobile Army units.
“The building of this power-projection capability will be an important complement to the PLA’s developing carrier/amphibious battle groups,” Fisher said.
They will give China’s leadership a range of global intervention options to sustain its gathering network of allies and partners, he said.