A week after the publication of blurry photographs depicting what appears to be China’s first long-range jet transport, Danger Room has obtained satellite imagery of the new plane at an airfield in central China.
The images, acquired by the GeoEye 1 and IKONOS spacecraft — both belonging to commercial satellite operator GeoEye headquartered in Washington, D.C. — corroborate the general layout of the Xian Aircraft Corporation Y-20, the existence of which has been confirmed by Beijing. They also underscore the emerging consensus among Western experts that the Y-20, while outwardly impressive, could lack the performance of even much older American, Russian and European transports.
The IKONOS image (below) is dated Dec. 25. It shows the Y-20 outside a large hangar at Yanliang airfield, home of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s test establishment. The base is crowded with examples of the PLAAF’s other main transports, including Y-8 medium airlifters and, apparently, tanker versions of the aged H-6 bomber — both types of which could in theory be replaced by the Y-20, ostensibly giving China the same global military reach the U.S. and other advanced nations have enjoyed for half a century.
The GeoEye 1 photo from Jan. 1 (above) depicts the new transport, which isn’t known to have flown yet, on one of Yanliang’s runways, surrounded by people and vehicles. News reports have claimed the Y-20 is currently undergoing runway taxi tests in preparation for its eventual first flight.
But even after that happens, the Y-20 will probably need lots of work. Indeed, when it comes to jet-transport technology Beijing is “falling behind, not catching up,” John Pike, an analyst with the Virginia-based Globalstrategy.org, writes in an e-mail to Danger Room.
Specifically, the Y-20 needs new engines — and there’s little evidence that Beijing is making much progress on that front. The prototype is reportedly fitted with old, Russian-made D-30 engines that probably aren’t adequate for the Y-20′s design.
The new imagery is sharper, more detailed and shot from a higher angle than the grainy first photos of the Y-20 that appeared on Chinese internet forums in late December, providing a much more reliable basis for assessing the transport’s layout. Apparently slightly smaller than the U.S. Air Force’s workhorse C-17, the Y-20 sports the same wide swept wing and T-shaped tail as the Boeing-made C-17, blueprints of which China obtained several years ago through a spy working for the Chicago-based plane manufacturer.
“In order to get the kind of range/payload capabilities you need to use this type of plane, it all comes down to the engines,” Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with Virginia market forecaster The Teal Group, emails Danger Room. “Designing a large, high-bypass turbofan is even harder than designing a combat engine [for jet fighters],” Aboulafia adds. “China shows no signs of being able to do that.”
There are only four companies in the world capable of building the kind of engines the Y-20 needs, Aboulafia says: three — GE/CFM, Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney — are Western companies and one is Russian. Arms controls in the West make it unlikely that Beijing will be able to source the Y-20′s motors from the former firms.
“In short, there are three possible explanations,” Aboulafia continues. ”One, this is just a prototype, or series of prototypes. Two, it will be built in series production, using a domestically-built knockoff engine that will result in a very short-range plane with a light payload. Three, they’ll do a deal with the Russians to start importing engines that can turn this into a Chinese copy of a former Soviet transport design.”
But even a copy of an older Soviet transport would likely feature only modest performance compared to more modern, unique designs. Moreover, Russia has been reluctant lately to sell engines to China, justifiably fearing that Beijing’s engineers will illegally reverse-engineer the motors.
All of which means the Y-20, so far, is more show than substance — an intriguing subject for internet forums and passing satellites, but not yet a threat to the transportation dominance of the U.S., Russia and Europe.