An air transport capacity to match China’s strategic ambitions

Author: Loro Horta, Dili

While analysts pay special attention to China’s growing fleet of modern fighter jets, such as the J-20 and J-15, they are far less enticed by its growing strategic airlift and logistics capacity. Although modern stealth fighters may be “sexier” than transport or air-to-air refueling platforms, China’s progress in this area is rapidly expanding its strategic footprint.

No air force – no matter how modern its fighters or the quality of its pilots – can win without good logistics. The generals of the Air Force of the People’s Liberation Army (PLAAF) understood this well. Over the past decade, China has invested significant resources in improving and expanding its air refueling and strategic airlift capabilities.

For most of its existence since its inception in 1949, the role of the PLAAF has been limited to defending the airspace of mainland China and surrounding areas. Chinese MiG-15s and MiG-17s fought American fighters in Korea and the Taiwan Strait in the early 1950s, but the role of the PLAAF was limited in both combat and support missions. logistics. The Chinese military has been an army-centric force for most of its history.

This has started to change along with China’s economic and strategic interests. Beijing’s growing global interests and territorial claims are now causing profound changes in the doctrine and force structure of the PLAAF, seeing it drift away from its traditional role of operating close to the nation’s continental airspace. . Under its nine-dash line, China claims a large number of islands and reefs in the South China Sea. He built several man-made islands in these contested waters and built tracks on some of them.

To regularly maintain and resupply these small isolated outposts, the PLAAF needed to increase its strategic airlift capabilities. Until recently, China relied on the Soviet-era design Il-76 as its primary transport aircraft – a mid-size aircraft with an operational range of 4,000 kilometers. But from 2016, the PLAAF began using the locally built Xi’an Y-20, its first true strategic airlift platform.

With an operational range of 7,800 kilometers and a cargo capacity of 66 tonnes, the Y-20 is a significant addition to the strategic airlift capabilities of the PLAAF. Although there is no reliable source confirming the exact number of operational Y-20s, it is currently believed to be over 20. If more than 20 aircraft have entered service in five years, it is reasonable to assume that their numbers will continue to increase.

In December 2020, satellite images showed a Y-20 parked on a runway at Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea – and there are reports of sightings at other man-made islands. The Y-20 was also allegedly involved in violations of Indian airspace and the exclusive economic zones of Malaysia and Indonesia. Such forays are aimed at testing the air defense capabilities of China’s regional rivals and acclimating the Y-20’s crews to long-range operations.

An in-flight refueling variant of the Y-20 – referred to by some sources as the Y-20U – has also entered service with the PLAAF, with at least four now likely to be operational. According to Chinese state media, the Y-20U is capable of refueling a wide range of aircraft, including the J-20 stealth fighter, bombers, and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. PLAAF’s growing fleet of Y-20 transport vehicles and air-refueling variants dramatically increases its ability to sustain operations well beyond its traditional area of ​​operations.

By extending the range and duration of combat aircraft, bombers, AWACS aircraft, and transport missions, the Y-20U dramatically increases the PLAAF’s ability to challenge U.S. and regional state operations in the region. . While China is still unable to establish air dominance in the South China Sea, its capacity is increasing day by day. China’s strategic airlift capabilities are now superior to those of the United States.

In addition to improving China’s ability to conduct and maintain air operations in disputed regional waters, its growing investments in strategic airlift and mid-air refueling are also aimed at more distant contingencies. China currently operates a naval base in Djibouti, at the entrance to the Red Sea. Supplying this base and all future Chinese military bases abroad requires a long-distance transport fleet.

But the most immediate motivation behind expanding China’s strategic airlift capabilities is to improve the ability of the PLAAF and naval aviation forces to support operations in the contested seas closer to China. China is deploying advanced air defense systems on its man-made islands and increasing the operational range of its growing number of modern fighter jets. Rapid improvements to its satellite network and AWACS aircraft are also increasing the Chinese military’s ability to monitor and target U.S. and allied forces.

The combination of these improvements means that the United States and its allies cannot take air dominance for granted in any conflict with China.

Loro Horta is a civil servant based in Dili and a former Ambassador of Timor-Leste to Cuba.

All opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author.

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