Since Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine more than 45 days ago, European airspace has seen an increase in air traffic with military planes flying back and forth with weapons and aid. However, European skies have seen some very unusual visitors to Serbia, one of Russia’s few allies in the region.
In a surprising move, six People’s Liberation Army (PLAAF) Y-20 cargo planes recently flew to Serbia through Turkish airspace, surprising flight trackers and aviation observers. The plane was first spotted just north of Istanbul in Turkey.
Following the sighting of the plane, Chinese analysts (unaware of the real purpose of the visit) speculated that it could be the largest international operation ever carried out by a heavy transport aircraft developed by China, demonstrating the country’s strategic lift capabilities, the Global Times reported.
“That was my cue to bring up both Flightradar24 and my selective ADSBexchange database which includes known hex codes Y-20A/U,” said flight tracker Evergreen Intel. The war zone. “Indeed, the different apps showed other Y-20s along the same flight route, spaced about 100 km apart stretching from Istanbul to almost the Georgian border.”
According to the analysis of flight trackers, military aircraft with MLAT have flown to Poland to deliver weapons systems since the beginning of the war. MLAT is a military technology that uses a process known as time difference of arrival to correctly locate aircraft, many of which do not want to be “seen”.
The unexpected Chinese cargo plane landed at Nikola Tesla International Airport in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Aviation observers noticed Chinese markings on cargo planes on final approach and on the tarmac.
Observers say at least some of the aircraft’s chaff and flare countermeasure systems have been removed, observers said, The War Zone noted. They appeared to have been equipped with actual countermeasures, which would indicate that they were anticipating a threat. However, the nature of this threat could only be clarified by PLA Air Force officials.
Interesting find by @Prova_61 👍… In fact, I’ve never seen before, what appears to be the hatch removed for the glitter and flare dispenser boxes.
(Images via Weibo’s @铁马军戈战沙场) pic.twitter.com/3xBOrkMlmI
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) April 9, 2022
Although there was no official Chinese announcement on the matter, Chinese military observers said the deployment of six Y-20 heavy transport aircraft could signal an unprecedented overseas mission.
It’s a first for a foreign mission to include six Y-20s, and it’s also unusual to see so many Y-20s deployed at the same time, Fu Qianshao, a Chinese military aviation expert, told the Global Times.
According to Fu, the operation demonstrates a significant advancement in the PLA Air Force’s long-range strategic lift capabilities, as well as the heavy lift aircraft’s intercontinental logistics support and maintenance capabilities.
Why did the Y-20s undertake the flight to Europe?
The Y-20 has already been used by China on missions in Europe. The PLA, for example, used a Y-20 to transport 105 PLA Honor Guard members to Moscow in June 2020 for the Russian Victory Day celebration.
However, to reach Serbia from China, the Y-20s would have to pass through several countries, which would mean that China would have had to have extensive coordination and communication with the governments of the countries it would have to pass through, a Chinese analyst speculated. .
But Chinese experts could not determine why the plane flew to Serbia at a time when a war is raging between Russia and Ukraine.
It is relevant to mention that Serbia is a close ally of Russia which condemned the war but refrained from imposing sanctions on Russia. Serbia also maintains close relations with China.
Later, reports said that the Chinese cargo plane that caused ripples was sent to the Balkan state for delivering a sophisticated Chinese anti-aircraft system to Belgrade. However, China maintained that only “regular military supplies” had been delivered to Serbia.
The Washington Post described it as a “semi-secret operation” that raised concerns in the west about an arms buildup in Serbia amid a war that could potentially threaten peace in the Balkan region that remains weak.
According to media and military experts, the aircraft fleet delivered HQ-22 surface-to-air missile systems for the Serbian army. Experts have seen the transfer of arms to the territory of at least two NATO member states, Turkey and Bulgaria, as a symbol of China’s growing global reach.
During the 1990s, Serbia was embroiled in conflict with its neighbours. The country, which has officially applied for EU membership, has already started to reinforce its military forces with Russian and Chinese weapons, including planes, battle tanks and other equipment.
The West fears that Russia and China arming Serbia will encourage the Balkan country to fight again, especially against Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 with US help. Serbia, Russia and China do not recognize the independence of Kosovo unlike the Western world.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic previously claimed that NATO countries, which make up the majority of Serbia’s neighbors, refused to allow the system’s delivery planes to pass over their territory due to concerns about the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
– pir3 (@pir34) April 10, 2022
In the face of these claims, the fact that Chinese planes eventually flew into the Serbian airport indicates Chinese influence in the region. China and Russia are close partners of Serbia, which often finds itself isolated with the NATO countries that surround it.
Serbia was initially to purchase the Russian S-30O, but later settled for the Chinese HQ-22 due to the high cost of the Russian system. In 2020 US officials warned Belgrade against purchasing HQ-22 anti-aircraft systems, also known as FK-3 in their export variant.
Although it has a shorter range than the more advanced S-300s, the Chinese missile system has often been compared to the American Patriot and Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. Serbia will now be the first European country to use Chinese missiles, a precedent that the United States would not like amid rising tensions with China amid a Russian invasion.
However, it opens up the possibility for China to gain ground in Europe as Russia’s defense industry now faces sanctions. The success of Chinese systems in the region could therefore be destabilizing for the West, which saw in it an opportunity to substitute Russian defense equipment.