Chinese military media have offered some suggestions on how to customize the homemade Y-20 cargo plane as the country needs its domestically developed large aerial tanker for a strategic air force.
Short- and long-term plans are possible for the Chinese Air Force, Ordnance Industry Science Technology, a Xi'an-based periodical on the national defense industry, said in an article published in its WeChat public account on Friday.
Since China is in urgent need of a large aerial tanker, it could go with the short-term plan first: installing refueling pods under its wings and by its rear, the article said.
This method, similar to the one used on the Russian Il-78 and European A400M tankers, would make little change to the aircraft's structure, the magazine said, noting that this method has relatively little technical difficulty and could be accomplished relatively faster and at a lower cost.
It also allows the Y-20 to retain its full transport capability, and the aircraft could still act as a cargo plane, the article said.
Eventually, a better option is to get rid of some of the transport capabilities like aerial delivery in favor of an integrated refueling platform within the fuselage similar to the Boeing KC-767. This would be much more complicated and could take longer, but will let the Y-20 carry even more fuel and become a more efficient tanker, the article said.
Developed by the Xi'an Aircraft Industry (Group) Company Ltd under the state-owned Aviation Industry of China, the Y-20 has a takeoff weight of 200 tons.
Tang Changhong, chief designer of the Y-20, said in a March press conference that the aircraft "can serve as a general platform from which a variety of variants can be derived."
Multiple Chinese and foreign reports indicated the development of a tanker version is possibly already under way.
When repurposed for aerial refueling, the Y-20 could carry about 90 tons of fuel, the magazine article said, noting that China's current aerial tanker HU-6 can only carry less than 30 tons.
Having a tanker version of the Y-20 would allow China's fighter jets and bombers to fly much farther than before, making the Chinese Air Force turn into a strategic force from a regional one, an anonymous military expert told the Global Times.
China aims to build a strategic air force by 2020, which will become modern by 2035, and will be world-class by the mid-21st century, the Xinhua News Agency reported in November 2018.