On October 7 2001, the U.S. military initiated air operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Fifteen bombers and twenty-five strike aircraft launched fifty cruise missiles against forty planned targets . By the time the first phase of the war ended on December 23, 2001, the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps had collectively flown approximately 6,500 strike sorties and dropped an estimated 17,500 munitions against various targets .
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U.S. Air Force land-based combat aircraft operated from bases such as Ahmed Al Jaber, Ali Al Salem in Kuwait and Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory. U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F-14 Tomcat fighters and F/A-18 fighter-attack combat jets conducted multiple strike sorties from aircraft carriers stationed in the Arabian Gulf and off the coast of Pakistan on a daily basis. These sorties originated from bases and operating areas hundreds to thousands of miles from the target areas in Afghanistan, requiring the creation of an “ air bridge ” which included approximately 4,700 aerial refueling sorties by U.S. Air Force KC-135s and KC-10s plus carrier-based refueling aircraft such as the now decommissioned S-3 Viking.
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China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) observed U.S. military operations in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm , NATO operations in the Balkans, and Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom closely, noting the significant role of airpower in modern warfare. These operations “shocked the PLA into the realization that it had to become capable of engaging in high-tech warfare or otherwise face the certainty of falling ever further behind other modern militaries.” This marked a momentous shift in Chinese national military strategy and the subsequent issuance of the “The Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” by the Chinese Communist Party and PLA in 1993 . The long distance air strike missions during Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom provided vivid examples of the criticality of aerial refueling in air power projection—a powerful reality fully recognized by Chinese military leadership.
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The genesis of the Chinese aerial refueling program dates back to the late 1960s when China initiated production of cloned Tupolev Tu-16K Badger bombers followed by an extended series production build of the platform until the late 1980s. The bomber, redesignated the H-6 Badger, would serve as the developmental platform of the H-6U aerial refueling tanker starting in 1986. The H-6U program, however, did not fit within the 1993 national military revamp as the PLA set out to rapidly modernize its military by reducing its reliant on foreign arms producers, such as Russia, and indigenously producing its own military hardware. Therefore, fewer than twenty H-6U airframes were actually developed in the subsequent years and proved less than optimal in servicing the PLA’s growing number and variants of combat aircraft. These limitations forced the PLA to embark on a supplementary effort to acquire IL-78 Midas tanker aircraft from Russia and Ukraine. After years of negotiation, the Midas tankers not only provided the PLA the means to fuel its fleet of Russian-made combat aircraft but also the aerial refueling technologies which could be applied in the creation of its own indigenous program .
However, the lack of aerial refueling continued to limit the operational power projection of both the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) as noted in a 2014 report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “At the moment, the Chinese do not have a sizeable or modern fleet of tankers and many of their current aircraft are not engineered for aerial refueling, a scenario which limits their reach… China’s current fleet of air refueling aircraft, which consists of approximately twelve 1950s-era H–6U tankers, is too small to support sustained, large-scale, long-distance air combat.”
In an attempt to address this operational limitation and establish a sustainable aerial refueling program of its own, the PLAAF initiated an indigenous aerial refueling program via the Xi’an Y-20 “Kunpeng” (named after an ancient Chinese mythical bird that can fly for thousands of miles) heavy transport aircraft platform with the first Y-20 prototype, successfully making its first flight at Shaanxi Yanliang Aviation Base in January 2013. The ensuing years involved prototype and engine research, development, testing and evaluation.
Then in March 2017, the PLA publicly confirmed the series production of the Y-20. The aircraft’s design chief Tang Chang Hong said that after eight months of operational trials, the PLAAF was pleased with the airlifter. “The Y-20 is a good starting point and will enable us to produce larger and more ‘important’ aircraft projects .” These “more important aircraft projects” likely include airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and aerial refueling variants .