After decades of relying - and then locally copying - Soviet Russian aircraft types, the Chinese undertook several indigenous programs to help evolve their burgeoning aviation industry. More recent developments have included the much-publicized Chengdu J-20 stealth aircraft and, in January of 2013, the still-in-development Xian Y-20 taking to the skies in China's bid to develop an in-house strategic airlifter. The program was born in a 2006 initiative while delays pushed back the initial unveiling until December of 2012 to which ground testing quickly ensued. First flight of the Y-20 platform was recorded on January 26th, 2013 with the program now covering two full prototypes headed by the Xi'an Aircraft Industrial Corporation (otherwise recognized simply as "Xian" for the purposes of this article). The Y-20 was formally introduced for service with the PLA Air Force on July 6th, 2016.
Its design is attributed to Xian's "603 First Aircraft Design Institute" (part of AVIC).
To date, the Chinese have relied on the Cold War-era Soviet Ilyushin IL-72 for their large-scale air transport requirement - and the Y-20 certainly showcases some similarities to the proven Russian offering while being dimensionally different physically but the same in battlefield role. When it reaches operational-level capabilities, the Y-20 will form a powerful arm of the PLAAF (People's Liberation Army Air Force) and take-on both military- and humanitarian-minded roles while perhaps projecting an appealing end-product to the foreign market requiring a budget-conscious alternative to more expensive Western and Russian offerings including the American C-17 Globemaster III, the Russian Ilyushin IL-76 (and newer Antonov An-70) and the French Airbus A400M Atlas - the Y-20 is thought to be comparable to all of these airframes in scope and function.
For its general outward configuration, Xian engineers elected for several notable tried-and-true design elements when constructing their Y-20 - design elements pioneered in the successful American Lockheed C-141 Starlifter of the 1960s. The Chinese design relies a deep and wide fuselage for its cargo hold with the flight deck at the extreme front and a "T-style" tail with high-mounted horizontal planes at the rear. This allows the tail section to be elevated from the ground and afford access to a rear powered cargo door when accepting or extracting various cargo types. The elevated tail section forces the main portion of the fuselage to remain rather low on the ground when the aircraft is at rest. As such a large collection of rubber tires are added to the reinforced main landing gear legs -a total of twelve wheels - to support the sheer mass of the airframe. The nose is supported by a standard two-wheeled leg unit. The undercarriage is said to comply with expected "rough-field" operations - a requirement of such aircraft in the modern world.
The Y-20 is given high-mounted monoplane wings with slight sweep along their leading edges and lesser sweep along their trailing edges. This allows engine nacelles to be fitted as underslung units, two to a wing, and provide the ground clearance needed for an aircraft expected to have much traffic around itself when landed. The engines are of local Chinese production though of Russian origin - the same as powering the aforementioned Cold War-era IL-76 (Saturn/Soloviev D-30KP) and the Xian H-6 strategic-bomber-turned-missile-carrier. Wings feature triple-slotted trailing edge flaps and full-span slats which, when coupled with the high-mounted wings and basic four-engined arrangement, allows for the required operational ranges as well as strong low-speed handling and performance characteristics.
The internal configuration of the Y-20 includes a cargo hold intended to transport medium-class disassembled helicopter type airframes, heavy vehicles (including light amphibious tanks) and cargo pallets into combat theaters. No doubt there will be support for seating in the transport of combat-ready infantry elements and airborne units. The Y-20 airframe exhibits an empty listed weight of 100,000 kilograms which can exceed 200,000 kilograms under full load. The operating crew requires just the pilot, a co-pilot and a loadmaster - contrasting the IL-76's flight deck which makes use of five total personnel. The smaller cockpit facility benefits the design by allowing for larger internal hold space for cargo and fuel stores.
When directly compared to the Russian IL-76, the Y-20 features a shorter wingspan, shorter overall fuselage length, wider fuselage diameter (for more critical internal volume) and a higher-rated maximum take-off weight (MTOW) while being able to haul roughly the same amount of goods and equipment. As it stands, the Y-20 is really only limited by Chinese engineering and this focuses primarily on the selected "medium-bypass" DP-30 series engines featured in the flying prototype.
While Chinese military aviation industry has progressed adequately since the days of whole reliance on the Soviet Union, the Chinese engine industry has lagged behind in producing viable, full-power "high-bypass" turbofan units. The technology for more powerful, in-house powerplants remains somewhat elusive for the nation - as it does for India's burgeoning defense scene - for engine development is a proven costly, technology-intensive process with many hurdles to ovwercome. Chinese aviation industry (as well as India's) are some decades behind the powers in the West and Russia which manage jet engine histories reaching as far back as World War 2. In that time, much knowledge has been garnered and refined, ultimately passed on to lesser defense industries in only basic forms. Should Chinese industry eventually develop a capable in-house "high-bypass" turbofan powerplant to power their new Y-20, the transport would certainly become a rather special strategic theater airlifter to be sure.
While still in development as of this writing (2013), the timely debut of the Y-20 appears during an unstable period for the Asia-Pacific region where China's growing military influence is becoming rather obvious. The nation is at odds with Japan on ownership of island chains which retain potentially lucrative natural resources. The unveiling of the Y-20 seems to coincide with the other recent indigenous Chinese developments intended to showcase China as a high-level military player. In the last few years, the country has unveiled various light- and medium-class fighter types, drones, armed battlefield helicopters, next-generation combat tanks and even a new operational aircraft carrier currently (2013) undergoing sea trials. The threat to the region is high enough to warrant constant attention by the American military which maintains a presence in regional waters in the region and on the Korean peninsula. All sides are left to wonder what the next step in a possible showdown will be.
A more compact airlifter has also been proposed by AVIC as the Y-30. Additionally, a dimensionally larger airlifter is also in the planning stages.