The appearance of the Y-20s raised eyebrows because they flew en masse as opposed to a series of single-plane flights. The presence of the Y-20 in Europe in numbers is also still a fairly new development.
These cargo planes are relatively new to the PLAAF inventory, having only entered service in 2016. We wrote about their first use in a crisis as part of the response to the early outbreaks of COVID-19 in Wuhan at early 2020. Since then they have expanded their operational footprint, including flying to Europe, but not in greater numbers like this operation. It is highly likely that the PLAAF used this delivery as a kind of demonstration of its own airlift capability given NATO’s continued efforts to get supplies and equipment to Ukraine’s war effort.
Quite similar in basic design and role to the US Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III, the future production Y-20 aircraft will use the locally produced WS-20 turbofan engine instead of Russian Oloviev D-30 jet engines. . Going to that higher bypass turbofan should also improve the overall performance of the Y-20.
The airframe and a notable aerial refueling variant made appearances in Malaysian airspace in the South China Sea and Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in 2021. The Y-tanker aircraft 20U reportedly supported more than two dozen PLAAF aircraft on the November 28 flight through Taiwan’s ADIZ we reported on at the time. You can read our coverage of that foray here.
According to Evergreen Intel, they tracked 43 known Y-20A/U cells, including at least 7 test cells. This is exactly what has been observed using open sources, the actual size of the fleet is likely much larger. At the end of 2019, there were 20 Y-20 cells in Xi’an, where they are produced, alone.
Whether it was a convenient demonstration of global reach or not, the mission was not routine. This large-scale sortie to deliver military equipment to Belgrade is further confirmation of the strategic airlift capability the PLAAF has achieved through its burgeoning Y-20 fleet, as well as growing operational knowledge of how to use it.
Besides the Y-20’s expanded presence over Europe, the fact that a high-end Chinese air defense system will work in Europe is another issue that will likely come to the chagrin of Serbia’s neighbors.
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