The Chinese military is developing an aerial-refueling version of its  Y-20. Photo: PLAAF
The Chinese military is developing an aerial-refueling version of its Y-20. Photo: PLAAF

China is looking to increase its air tanker fleet after its fighter jets, bombers and surveillance aircraft conducted an “island encirclement patrol” of Taiwan earlier this week.

As the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) extends exercises in the Western Pacific, refueling will become a problem for its strike aircraft.

The People’s Daily has already confirmed that the PLA’s Northern Theater Command will organize war-games to prepare pilots for more aerial refueling missions. But to do this, China will need to increase its air tanker fleet.

Yin Zhuo, a PLA Rear Admiral-turned military commentator, told the state broadcaster CCTV that a squadron of H-6K Badger bombers were capable of piercing the Second Island Chain after aerial refueling.

He was referring to the strategic containment line in the Pacific, which runs along the Ogasawara Islands and Volcano Islands of Japan, as well as the Mariana Islands, a United States territory.

An Y-20 at an airshow. Photo: PLAAF

Yin’s comments triggered speculation that the air tanker fleet could get an enhanced version of the new Y-20, which was brought into service as a cargo plane in 2013, and is known as “Chubby Girl”.

Reworked as a refueling workforce, it would take over from the 12 1950s-era H-6U tankers, which are too small to support long-distance air combat.

“Assuming air superiority within the first island chain and farther east of Taiwan, the combination of Y-20 aerial refueling and the H-6K bombers’ long-range missiles, puts the United States and partner forces operating outside the Second Island Chain, such as Alaska and Hawaii, at risk,” The National Interest magazine, which covers international affairs, reported, citing David Barr, a career intelligence officer with the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

Developed by the state-owned Aviation Industry Corp of China, the Y-20 has a bulky fuselage, hence the “Chubby Girl” nickname, a shoulder wing and heavy-duty retractable landing gear,

The Y-20’s colossal fuselage dwarfs an airport car. Photo: PLAAF

The aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight is 242 tons and has four D-30KP-2 engines. The tanker version being developed would carry 110 tons of fuel, enough to refuel 20 J-10 fighters, according to Yin.

A photo dispatched by the PLAAF shows an H-6K bomber above the Taiwan Strait. Photo: PLA
The PLAAF’s H-6K bomber above the Taiwan Strait. Photo: PLAAF

In addition, the PLAAF has been conducting exercises with its upgraded H-6K bomber, including aerial refueling.

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