by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.Obtaining strategic airlift is a challenge every emerging power must confront. African Union peace support operations have routinely failed due to the lack of capacity to transport troops to conflict areas, and recent interventions in Mali and South Sudan have only taken place through the contribution of airlift by European Union members and the United States. NATO has sought to close the gap in airlift capabilities among its own members through the establishment of a consortium which pools resources to purchase and jointly operate Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft. As China seeks to exert greater influence globally, though, how are Chinese defence officials pursuing strategic airlift?
Traditionally, China has relied upon the Ilyushin Il-76. A model employed by military and civilian operators in 38 countries, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has encountered no significant issues with the 14 aircraft of this design that it uses as its primary source of strategic airlift. In fact, China has ordered up to 20 more Il-76 transports from the manufacturer in Russia. But even this does not seem to be enough for Chinese officials. Apparently concerned by the country’s reliance upon Russia for the manufacture of much of its aircraft, China is developing its own strategic transport, the Xian Y-20.
Currently, only three prototypes have been produced for PLAAF but the Y-20 is expected to become a mainstay for Chinese military and civilian operators. Although the Y-20 suffers from some pitfalls common to aircraft designed in China, such as relying upon Russian engines, it shows great promise. For example, the expected payload of the Y-20 is 66 tonnes, which is substantially greater than the 42 to 48 tonnes the various configurations of the Il-76 are capable of transporting. The Y-20 will also reportedly have a greater range than the Il-76. Specifically, a Y-20 taking off from one of China’s airbases in Xinjiang could fly as far as Cairo, Egypt before needing to refuel. A Y-20 based in Hainan could reach anywhere in Southeast Asia, further tipping the balance of power in the South China Sea’s ongoing territorial disputes. The Y-20 is also interesting insofar as China is experimenting with new manufacturing technologies. Allegedly 3-D printing will be used in an effort to accelerate the production of these new aircraft. It remains to be seen whether this will compromise the safety or durability of the Y-20 but the test flights of the current prototypes have proceeded without incident.
Although some of the security implications of the Y-20 are concerning, the introduction of this improved strategic airlift capacity for PLAAF offers new opportunities for constructive engagement with China. China has generally relied upon its maritime forces in order to contribute to multinational operations. Since 2008, more than 40 Chinese warships have assisted in efforts to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden. But the range of the Y-20 will allow China to more actively participate in peace support operations throughout Africa. China has committed to deploy more than 700 troops to South Sudan in support of the UN peacekeeping mission in that war torn country in early 2015. With the Y-20, future such deployments could be more commonplace.
This should be a welcome development among American and European policymakers. China’s existing aircraft can already reach disputed territories in the South China Sea from several airbases. But China has already shown a remarkable willingness to participate constructively in African peacekeeping missions even with its current transport capabilities. In 2013, a small detachment of Chinese troops proved valuable to the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA). Between 1993 and 2005, Chinese troops also participated in United Nations operations in Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. In contrast, aside from a small detachment of American forces assisting Uganda in the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army, the US has refrained from ‘putting boots on the ground’ in Africa ever since the failed intervention in Somalia.
Greater involvement from China may also counter-intuitively enhance the transparency of African security affairs. Until the deployment of EU forces to the Central African Republic in early 2014, the unilateral intervention of French forces was regarded with considerable suspicion by the local populace. The number, disposition, and objectives of the French forces were never made clear. Operation Barkhane, France’s ongoing mission to hunt terrorists in the Sahel region, has also aroused suspicion as French forces roam freely across the borders of sovereign African countries. China has demonstrated an opposition to such ad hoc missions, insisting on only participating in interventions in Africa under the auspices of the UN. This is not to say that China is a paragon of international law; Chinese behaviour in disputes with Japan and Vietnam attests to China’s own unilateralist tendencies. But an increased dependency on China to share the burden in stabilizing failed or failing states would deter some countries from waging secret wars in Africa.
Yet there is one caveat to the Y-20. It seems to have been developed with a view to transporting current equipment used by the People’s Liberation Army, rather than incorporating a forward-looking design. With a payload of 66 tonnes, the Y-20 could transport a single Type-99 main battle tank and little else. The cargo hold is also spacious enough to just fit a Type-99. If the PLA adopts heavier vehicles and equipment in the future, the Y-20 will be unable to meet China’s needs. As such, the Y-20 could simply be intended as a first foray into the design and production of strategic transport, with another design to follow in the 2020’s. Meanwhile, the Y-20 could then be marketed abroad as a cargo freighter for civilian operators, boasting a greater transport capacity than the Boeing 777F that is flown by Cathay Pacific and other cargo airlines around the world.
Whatever China’s ultimate plans for the Y-20 are, it is clear that strategic airlift will not be a challenge for the country. Although Chinese policymakers have sought close relations with Pakistan and Iran in recent years, airbases in those countries will no longer be essential to China’s western logistics as the Y-20 and possible future designs will be able to travel beyond Central Asia before needing refuelling. This will undoubtedly enhance China’s power projection, raising the country’s profile in the international community. This can be interpreted as a threat or a challenge by Euro-Atlantic decision-makers, or it can be seen as an opportunity to manage China’s rise. Affording opportunities for the Chinese to engage constructively in future peace support operations, particularly in Africa, will be the best means of achieving the latter.
The Y-20 is taking part in the Zhuhai Airshow, which starts this week in China (the Video above shows a preparation flight for the Airshow on 07. Nov. 2014). According to David Cenciotti, from The Aviationist, the Y-20 “is a hybrid between the U.S. C-17, the Airbus A400M Atlas four-engine turboprop, and the nose section of the Antonov An-70“. By the way “in July 2009, a former Boeing employee was convicted of selling secret C-17 technical details to China“. Read a summary about the Chinese aircraft displayed at the Zhuhai Airshow on “Information Dissemination“.