The Next China Military Threat Might Be This Picture (As in Tankers)

November 9, 2021 Topic: Chinese Military Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaTanker AircraftTaiwanJapanWarY-20

The Next China Military Threat Might Be This Picture (As in Tankers)

Beijing may be accelerating the pace of construction of Xi’an Y-20 tanker aircraft to align with its evolving plan to achieve global domination by 2049.

The Chinese Air Force is quickly moving to expand its fleet of air-to-air refueling aircraft to close a tanker deficit with the United States and more fully project global airpower. 

The United States operates hundreds of tanker aircraft. Meanwhile, China is listed as only about two dozen tanker aircraft, according to Global Firepower. This limited number of tanker aircraft would likely imperil any Chinese effort to launch a large-scale cross-continental air campaign. China already has fewer fifth-generation aircraft when compared to the United States, NATO and Pacific allies. The absence of tanker aircraft makes it difficult for Chinese fighter jets, which likely have a combat radius of three hundred to five hundred miles, to travel thousands of miles across a continent or ocean area. China can still easily reach Japan, Taiwan, India, parts of Southeast Asia, and possibly Australia. But cross-continental air-attack is likely out of reach for the communist country.

There are a few things China is doing quickly to address this deficit. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is developing a new tanker-variant of its Xi’an Y-20 cargo airplane, which is similar to the U.S. Air Force’s C-130 cargo aircraft.  

“The PLAAF is developing the Y-20U, a new tanker variant of its large Y-20 heavy-lift transport, which will enable the PLAAF to significantly expand its tanker fleet and improve its power,” according to the Defense Department’s 2021 report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China.

China may be accelerating the pace of construction of these Y-20 tanker aircraft to align with its evolving plan to achieve global domination by 2049. Should the attack range of China’s fighter jets and bombers be extended, then that opens up an entirely new mission envelope for the PLAAF. This opens up an entirely new sphere of attack options for China. Nonetheless, China’s lack of tanker aircraft is likely one of many reasons why it is vigorously expanding its footprint and influence around the world to include more locations in the Middle East and Africa. Much of China’s incursions into Africa, apart from the emergence of a military base in Djibouti, are economic or business-oriented in nature. If China is able to base aircraft in parts of Northern Africa, then that greatly improves the PLAAF’s ability to reach the European continent for potential air attacks. This is significant because without a larger tanker aircraft fleet or substantial forward positioning, China would be ill-equipped to handle a large-scale air confrontation beyond its immediate region.

That said, a lack of tanker aircraft does not limit China’s ability to attack Taiwan or possibly even Japan. But in the case of Japan, refueling, or amphibious forces might be needed during the invasion to give China’s fighter jets an extended reach and dwell time. This is where a multifunctional Xi’an Y-20 variant would be most helpful. It could assist with amphibious attacks. The large cargo aircraft could deliver supplies, ground troops or weapons to an amphibious landing area. Also, the cargo aircraft could make it possible for fighter jets to help an amphibious attack pursue air superiority. 

China is quickly expanding its amphibious assault capacity with new ships and drones. The addition of sustained fifth-generation airpower in support of amphibious assaults could bring an entirely new dimension to Chinese threats to Taiwan and other areas.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons