An armed, aerial refuelling-capable variant of the Z-20 helicopter makes its first appearance to the public in the form of computer-generated imagery in a promotional video of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the maker of the aircraft, in early 2022 that rounds up achievements made in 2021. Photo: Screenshot from the Sina Weibo account of AVIC

An armed, aerial refuelling-capable variant of China's Z-20 medium-lift utility helicopter is believed to be currently under development after the aircraft's maker recently revealed concept art for such a chopper, observers said on Sunday.

The state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the maker of most aircraft used by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), released a promotional video titled "In the blue sky" on January 31 on social media platforms, in which the company rounded up the achievements it made in 2021.

The title screen of the video displays the three "20" series aircraft developed by AVIC, namely the J-20 stealth fighter jet, the Y-20 large transport aircraft and the Z-20 helicopter, in computer-generated imagery.

While the computer-generated art for the J-20 and the Y-20 seem identical to their real-life counterparts, the Z-20 looks significantly different to the ones in service with the PLA Army today, as it has a pair of short wings, each carrying four missiles and a multiple rocket launcher.

This makes this Z-20 likely an armed assault variant, as the current version of the Z-20 is a utility version for mainly transport missions, and does not have the wings or the weapons, analysts said.

Ordnance Industry Science Technology, a defence magazine based in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, reported in January 2021 that the armed variant of the Z-20 was already under development at that time, citing a photo that circulated on social media.

In addition, the new Z-20 variant seems to have a long lance-like pole to the right of its nose, according to the latest AVIC video. This pole is likely a refuelling probe that allows the chopper to receive aerial refuelling, analysts said.

Just before AVIC released the video, Deng Jinghui, chief designer of the helicopter, said in an interview with China Central Television, the state broadcaster, in early January that he was considering extending the range of the Z-20 in the form of aerial refuelling, since the helicopter's range is limited compared with a fixed-wing aircraft.

The current version of the Z-20 is a base version with high utility, and it is highly expected that it would spawn many variants to suit different types of combat needs by the PLA, just as the US has done with its Black Hawk helicopter, a Beijing-based military expert who requested anonymity told the Global Times on Sunday.

In addition to armed assault, the Z-20 could also be developed into variants for vessel-based transport, anti-submarine warfare, special operations, search and rescue as well as medical support, the expert predicted.

While all the variants will have differences, they share many basic parts and systems, and this will make production and maintenance much easier than developing completely different helicopters for different missions, the expert said, noting that this will also contribute to lowering the cost of the aircraft thanks to economies of scale.

Deng said in a separate interview with CCTV in November 2019 that he hoped the Z-20 will break the record in terms of the numbers produced among all Chinese helicopters and remain in service for a long time.