China’s new strategic transporter, the Y-20, being built in significant numbers, satellite imagery shows

by Vinayak Bhat

China’s indigenously developed military transport aircraft, the Y-20, is being built in significant numbers, with latest satellite imagery showing six planes at various stages of completion at the production hub of Yanliang.

The home-grown transporter is codenamed ‘Kunpeng’ after the mythical bird beast believed to fly for tens of thousands of kilometres in a single flight and dubbed “chubby girl”. Designed and manufactured by government entity Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the lifter is aerodynamically shaped and sized akin to the Russian transport aircraft IL-76, which is also operated in large numbers by India.

A key difference is the tail section, where the Y 20 resembles the C-17 Globemaster of the US Air Force, another transporter in service with the Indian Air Force.

Given its deep and wide fuselage, the aircraft is believed to be designed for a load of 200 metric tonnes, and transporting troops and cargo. There are reports that the Y-20 can be converted to carry electronic warfare and refuelling equipment, enhancing China’s national strength.

The aircraft’s designed performance, especially in adverse weather conditions, makes it the ideal transporter for operations during natural calamities and humanitarian assistance operations.

First Flight

The Y-20 Kunpeng, which is supposed to improve China’s strategic power projection capability, took off on its first flight on New Year’s Day in January 2013. The flight at Xi’an Yanliang airport has been caught on satellite imagery.


The first two aircraft were delivered to the 12th air regiment of the 4th transport division at Qionglai in June 2016. The aircraft was officially handed over to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in the first week of July 2016 at a larger ceremony in Yanliang.

Satellite imagery of Qionglai from December 2017 indicates at least three more aircraft have joined the regiment. Latest imagery of Yanliang, from February 2018, shows six aircraft at various stages of completion. The imagery suggests at least four of the aircraft are ready for delivery to the Qionglai airbase.

Strategic Airlift Exercises

Qionglai came to pre-eminence as an important strategic transport airbase when the PLAAF conducted its first-ever large-scale exercise for handling simultaneous operations of multiple aircraft from a dual runway airport in November 2012.

The airbase, home to the fourth transport division of the PLAAF, is located 650km from the Indian border. A recent exercise was conducted over Tibet in the first week of June 2017 to test combat airlift capability in the area. This took place barely 10 days before the Doklam faceoff surfaced.

The Future

Reports on the Chinese internet suggest that China is planning to convert some of these aircraft into mid-air refuellers to augment its H-6U and IL-78 fleet. However, China has yet to master the drogue technology that is needed for efficient mid-air fuelling operations.

Some trial versions were observed at a few aeronautical exhibitions but they have not been seen in use. A sudden jump in strategic transports will greatly enhance China’s strategic airlift capability. It will act as a force multiplier in all of the PLAAF’s future operations. The strategic location of these aircraft at Qionglai gives China exceptional aerial capabilities against India.