Given that China’s Z-10 attack helicopter looks like a transparent rip-off of the U.S. Apache, it might not surprise many to see that China’s upgraded Z-20 utility helicopter, sure enough, looks almost identical to a U.S. Army Black Hawk.
However, just how capable is it? It would seem unlikely if not impossible to posit that China’s upgraded Z-20, intended for increased operations in the high-altitude plateau areas of Western China, can in any way rival the Army’s new Future Long Range Assault Aircraft slated to emerge in coming years. More realistically, can it rival an upgraded U.S. Black Hawk M-model helicopter?
While China’s Z-20 may resemble the Black Hawk when it comes to external configuration, as it does look nearly identical in shape and structure, it may or may not compare when it comes to engine power, lift-capacity, digital avionics, targeting sensor technology, high-hot conditions capability and weapons performance.
A report in China’s Global Times newspaper says the new Z-20 variant, an upgraded version of the first Z-20s to emerge in 2019, incorporates “domestically developed engines and rotors built with anti-icing and de-icing technology that allow it to fly despite low oxygen levels at high altitudes and harsh cold.”
The Chinese paper quotes experts saying the new Z-20 appears to incorporate engine modifications to enable improved performance, yet there may not be a clear way to know how it compares to the high-powered 701D engine now powering the U.S. Black Hawk.
The Army’s 701D now powers up the latest Apache and Black Hawk helicopters. The Army’s previous 701C—commonly used as the standard engine for Black Hawks and Apaches for the last 20 years—has a 1,900 shaft horsepower engine. The more modern 701D engine brings that up to 2,000 shaft horsepower, adding an extra 100 horsepower.
Also, the Black Hawk M model uses advanced glass-cockpit digital avionics, composite anti-vibration rotorblades and upgraded sensors, technical systems which it might be difficult to replicate. At the same time, while the Z-20 may be engineered for better performance in the harsh cold, what about the even more challenging “high-hot” conditions where thinner air makes helicopter maneuvers much more difficult?
The Black Hawk M-model performed well in deployments in Afghanistan, Army reports describe. The M-model Black Hawk’s digital cockpit display made a large difference with pilots, Army evaluators said following its deployment in combat. The M-model not only brings multi-functional digital technology to what had been analogue technologies but also combines integrated Blue Force Tracker digital moving map displays showing force location data.
The M-model aircraft is also interoperable with the latest Army Aviation Mission Planning Systems. This enables pilots to plan a mission in their pilot ready room on laptop computers, store data onto a small card and plug it into the aircraft, allowing them to pull up maps, graphic displays and other mission-essential information. The Black Hawk M has a “data-transfer system” which enables pilots to plug in a card, pull up data and display graphics showing routes, landing locations, radio frequencies and refuel and re-arm points.
Also, the combination of wide-chord composite rotor blades and a more powerful engine give the M-model Black Hawk about 500 pounds of additional lift capability compared to previous models. This is yet another area where there may be little way to discern how lift performance may compare between a Black Hawk M and Chinese Z-20. However, lift capacity is more difficult to generate at higher altitudes where the new Z-20 variant is expected to operate.
Of course, the Z-20 does not in any way appear stealthy, it does have a rounded nose and a conspicuous absence of sharp external structures, along with a few other noticeable characteristics. Unlike previously observed Z-20 helicopters that had engine exhaust openings facing outward, the choppers used by the Xinjiang Military Command have engine exhaust openings facing upward, an adjustment which the Chinese paper says could be intended to “reduce infrared signatures so the helicopters could gain survivability as they would be less likely to get locked on by hostile anti-aircraft fire.”
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.