Forget About China’s Stealth Fighter or Aircraft Carriers. This Is the Plane America Needs to Worry About.

The Y-20 is critical for Beijing. Here’s why.

As China rises to the status of a global superpower, it is looking to acquire assets on a scale possessed previously only found operated by the United States: a huge fleet of gigantic, globe-spanning cargo planes. Indeed, its new Y-20 “Chubby Girl” transport is the largest aircraft in production since the U.S. completed production of the C-17.

The U.S. Air Force currently operates nearly six hundred C-130 Hercules, C-17 Globemaster and C-5 Galaxy cargo planes. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force only as around 145 transports according to figures from Flight Global, of which 43 are Y-7s only capable of lifting six tons. For global ‘strategic’ lift capability, the PLAAF relies on twenty-two Il-76MD jets purchased from Russia which can lug 53 tons of cargo in their portly holds. For example, after the outbreak of civil war in Libya in 2011, the PLAAF mustered four Il-76s to evacuate its citizens.

Today, China increasingly needs to sustain military deployments to Africa as well as bases and allies in the Indian and Pacific Ocean. But the desire for strategic airlift capability can also be explained by factors much closer to home. After the devastating 2005 earthquake in Sichuan, the PLAAF struggled to deploy cargo planes to the disaster zone.

Just a year later, the Xi’an Aircraft Corporation began work on a new strategic airlifter. Previously, nearly all Chinese transports were clones or imports of Soviet designs, and Xi’an indeed turned to the Antonov design bureau for assistance. The Ukrainian company offered a scaled-up, jet-powered derivative of its An-70 turbobrop transport. The design had to be further revised, however, as China developed a heavier 64-ton Type 99A main battle-tank .

Development was eventually handed off to Tang Changhong, the designer of the JH-7 fighter-bomber. Under his leadership, the development team adopted design techniquesfirst implemented on the Boeing 787 jetliner and Airbus A400, insisting that the new cargo jet be entirely designed using 3D-modeling (or Model-Based Definition), and use 3D-printed composite materials. He also used relational-design technology, in which the ‘skeleton’ of the plane is modeled, so that if one aspect of the geometry is modified, the other parts are automatically adjusted. This approach reportedly cut stages of the aircraft’s development and assembly time by 30 to 75 percent, resulting in a flying prototype by January 2013.

The four-engine aircraft’s broad fuselage give it a distant resemblance to the larger C-17 and led to its popular appellation Pàng niū (“Chubby Girl”) rather than its official title of Kunpeng, a mythical far-flying bird. Heavy tires on the 110-ton jet’s low-hanging belly allow it to land on rough, unpaved airstrips close to the frontline, and it reportedly can take off from a strip as short as six hundred to seven hundred meters long. However, the Y-20 would also have long reach, able to fly 2,700 miles with maxed-out payload, or 4,500 to 6,200 miles carrying medium or light loads, traveling at a maximum speed of 575 miles per hour.

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