China is expected to publicly unveil the tanker variant of the Xian Y-20 military transport aircraft soon, while an airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) version is in development. The commander of an air force aviation regiment of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theater Command, Teng Hui, confirmed to Chinese state media the existence of the two variants and that the public will see the tanker version in the “not too distant future.”
The introduction of the domestically built Y-20 tanker—most likely to be designated YU-20 or Y-20U—into the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) will give the air arm the strategic tanking capability it lacks. Currently, the bulk of tankers are Xian HY-6s, based on the Tu-16 bomber airframe, with a fuel payload of only around 30 tonnes. The PLAAF also has the Ilyushin Il-78MP in service with around 90 tonnes' payload, but with only three on strength it is not able to exercise its full potential in the PLAAF. The first indications of a Y-20 tanker variant emerged in November 2018 when satellite imagery showed underwing refueling pods on a Y-20.
Meanwhile, development is ongoing of the Y-20 AEW variant, which will supplement four KJ-2000 AWACS aircraft, based on the Russian Beriev/Ilyushin A-50 “Mainstay” but with domestically developed AESA radar. Plans to expand the PLAAF’s KJ-2000 fleet were hindered by the lack of available Il-76 airframes, but the issue is being overcome now that Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation is producing the Y-20 airframe. The final AWACS product could be the rumored KJ-3000, with enhanced ASEA radar developed by the 14th Institute, mounted as a conformal radar system for all-around coverage.
The PLAAF’s large combat aircraft fleet is often undermined by its lack of high-end supporting assets such as tankers and AWACS platforms. With a substantial fleet of Y-20Us and KJ-3000s, the PLAAF will be able to push its aerial influence farther afield into contested regions, keeping its new platforms such as the Chengdu J-20 aloft longer to defend its massive coastlines or strike its potential foes.