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New PLA Transport Aircraft: Building For Power Projection

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on June 25th, 2006


The tragedy of a June 3, 2006 crash of a yet undisclosed Chinese military transport aircraft also serves to call attention to China’s renewed effort, after many false starts, to create an indigenous capacity to design and build large aircraft. China intends eventually to challenge Airbus and Boeing in the civil arena and to build a new fleet of large cargo transports to enable greater power-projection missions by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Like its current investment in aircraft carrier battle groups, it is increasingly apparent that China’s views the development of large aircraft as a necessary step to fulfill its "great power" ambitions. Until recently, the major-platform air transport capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was limited to about 25 to 40 Shaanxi Y-8 medium transports, copies of the Ukrainian Antonov An-12 Cub, and about 20 Russian Ilyushin Il-76MD heavy transports purchased during the 1990s. In the last two years however, Shaanxi has started producing a series of new transports and electronic warfare aircraft based on substantially modified Y-8 designs. A new 20 metric ton (ton) capacity transport called the Y-9 may prove to be both economical and capable. In addition it now appears that China is working to realize its ambition to develop and build much larger or "strategic" 50 to 60-ton air transport aircraft, albeit with substantial help from the Ukraine. China may also be interested in either purchasing or co-producing the Antonov’s 150-ton capacity An-124 Ruslan.

6.3 Tragedy

This is what we know: on the evening of June 3, 2006 a military transport aircraft with "40" passengers crashed in Anhui Province near the town of Bodian. Chinese reports note the possibility of engine failure, a mid-air explosion and some report witnesses hearing explosions just before and after the crash. More recent reports suggest the possibility of a wing de-icing equipment failure leading to an unrecoverable stall.[1] On June 4 Central Military Commission Vice Chairman and ranking PLA officer General Guo Boxiong is reported to have made an inspection of the crash scene, and on June 5 Chinese President Hu Jintao issued condolences. What we do not yet know: the type of aircraft and its military mission, a result of usual PLA censorship. There has been copious speculation in the Chinese press,[2] repeated in some Western accounts,[3] that the aircraft involved was a Kongjing KJ-2000 airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, an evolved version of the turbofan-powered Russian Beriev A-50, in turn based on the Il-76 heavy transport. However, other Chinese press reports note that many of the crash victims were associated with the 38th Research Institute of the China Electronic Technology Group (CETC), which is usually linked with the fixed linear active phased array radar program on a new version of the turboprop-powered Shaanxi Y-8 medium transport.[4] The key difference is that that KJ-2000 is fitted with a new version of the Israeli Aircraft Industries Phalcon fixed active phased array radar while the Y-8 or Y-9 AWACS program is believed to be a largely indigenous product.

As with the April 2003 submarine disaster in which 70 crew members died, there may never be an official public report on the June 3, 2006 crash. Yet, it should not be expected that the crash will prove to be a major setback for either China’s ambition to build large aircraft or the many important electronic and weapon systems they will eventually carry. For example, the PLA may be pursuing four distinct airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft programs: the KJ-2000; two programs based on the Y-8; and a smaller naval carrier-based AWACS system. By contrast, the U.S. Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS with an earlier generation rotating radar, first entered service in 1977, and the U.S. Air Force is having some difficulty advancing its E-10A, on which it hopes to combine airborne and ground-mapping radar. Key to the development of such "force multiplying" aircraft has been the development of large passenger and cargo transport aircraft.

Airlift and Global Ambitions

While America’s post-World War Two global reach has rested primarily on its comprehensive maritime power, since the 1960s it has also relied increasingly on its constantly improving fleet of large jet-powered transport aircraft. Beginning with the 1948 Berlin Airlift, followed by scores of military actions, small and large, and far more numerous though unheralded humanitarian exercises, large U.S. Air Force (USAF) transport aircraft have become the ubiquitous symbol of American "hard" and "soft" power. The justification for the first U.S. fleet of large jet powered transports can be traced to the early 1960s doctrines of "Flexible Response," which held that the U.S. must be able to project large-scale conventional forces for contingencies that did not warrant the use of nuclear weapons.[5]

By 1968 the USAF had acquired 284 of the 41-ton capacity Lockheed-Martin C-141 Starlifter, of which 270 were modified into longer fuselage C-141Bs, and all retired by 2005. Advances in engine and construction technology allowed the USAF to acquire 81 of the 118-ton capacity Lockheed-Martin C-5 Galaxy transports between 1968 and 1973, plus 50 more C-5Bs between 1968 and 1969. About 111 of these are slated to be upgraded to C-5Ms, with more powerful engines and upgraded electronics; the first was completed in May 2006.[6] These, along with 180 of the smaller 77-ton capable Boeing C-17 Globemaster III expected to be delivered by 2009, will constitute the new core of USAF heavy-lift power projection.

C-17 In China: In early 2006 a USAF C-17 made a very rare visit to Chengdu China, reportedly to transport members of the “Capstone” star-rank class of the U.S. National Defense University in Washington, D.C. By the end of the next decade China may be able to send its own “Capstone” students to the U.S. in a similarly sized transport. Source: Chinese Internet

China also appears to be developing a sense that it too needs to build a military force with global reach. In mid-May 2006, Rear Admiral Yang Yi, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the National Defense University of the PLA told an interviewer:

"What is particularly noteworthy is that compared with the political, diplomatic, and cultural means of safeguarding China’s interests, China’s military force lags far behind. As a responsible big power, China needs to build a military force worthy of its international status…This makes it necessary to combine "soft force" and "hard force."[7]

Such ambitions are now being gradually revealed in terms of China’s ambition to build aircraft carrier battle groups that will allow Chinese leaders to project military power, and thus political influence far from its shores.[8] It is also to be expected that China will strive to develop large transport aircraft to project power as a complement to its growing maritime power.

11th Five Year Plan And Large Aircraft Advocacy

On March 5, 2006 Premier Wen Jiabao presented the government work report to the Chinese National People’s Congress, which included an outline of the 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010).[9] While exact details of the Five Year Plan are not public knowledge, on March 10 a "senior official" from the China Aviation Industries Company One (AVIC 1) consortium of aerospace companies called attention to the Five Year Plan’s commitment to develop "large aircraft." This official, Liu Daxiang, also noted that large aircraft mean carrying 150 passengers for airliners or up to 100 tons for large cargo aircraft.[10] In 2004 China’s State Council ordered the two major Chinese aviation consortia, AVIC-1 and AVIC-II, to study the feasibility of building a 150-seat airliner,[11] so the 2006 decision marks a victory for Liu and other Chinese advocates of large indigenous air transports.

Liu Daxiang is a leading Chinese expert on aircraft engines—the Achilles Heel for China’s large aircraft ambitions. Liu also holds corporate, military and political positions that have enabled him to become a key advocate for the development of large aircraft in China. A longtime professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Liu received the honor of being elected to the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 1995.[12] But he has also been deeply involved in programs for the PLA. One biography notes he has "been appointed as the chief engineer of three major national defense research projects, one national key project and as the chief general designer and one of the key technicians in charge,"[13] while another source notes he has been a member of the powerful Science and Technology Committee under the General Armaments Department of the PLA’s Central Military Commission.[14] Liu is also a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and is Vice Chairman of the NPC’s Ukraine Friendship Committee—a very strategic relationship for realizing China’s large aircraft ambitions.

From his membership in the NPC Liu has helped to craft resolutions proposing the development of large aircraft during the 2003 and 2004 NPC sessions, and has apparently reached his goal of focusing government funding toward the development of large aircraft for the 11th Five Year Plan. Liu told the press that a 150 seat airliner could be developed by 2015 and that it could be ready for Chinese passenger service by 2020. In June 2005 Liu noted, "If China does not roll out its own trunk liner by 2020, then the country will not succeed in 2030 or 2040. So it is really a rush."[15] From this comment, it can at least be inferred that Liu understands the importance of China’s success in becoming a full developer and producer of large transport aircraft to the larger goal of enabling China to become an economic and military superpower later in this century.

Grounded Domestic Sector And Failed Attempts

Critical to the American success in building ever-better airlifters has been constant growth in its domestic air travel sector, supportive government-regulatory organs and competition among aircraft, engine and component manufacturers to develop new technology for the civil market, which then benefits the building of ever better large military aircraft. Boeing’s early 1950s work on the B-52 Stratofortress bomber allowed it to develop the mid-1950s Boeing-707 airliner family, of which many military variants are still flying. Large turbofan engine technology originally developed for the C-5 also enabled the development of the Boeing 747 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Since the 1970s the civil market has largely sustained the development of ever more powerful and efficient large turbofans that are now available for future military applications.

In China the design and construction of modern cost-efficient civil passenger and large cargo transport aircraft has been inhibited by an inability to achieve constant technological advancement across a variety of aeronautic, engine, electronics, material and production disciplines. Reasons for this include the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, a Soviet-style division of design and production organizations which inhibit rapid responses to the market, and a longstanding lack demand by civil and military operators sufficient enough to force political leaders to commit the resources necessary to produce world-class aircraft, vice simply purchasing them from abroad. Lack of civil demand has also been inhibited by an underdeveloped air transport sector that relied on substantial state financing and did not allow for free-wheeling competition. This began to change in 1998 when China reorganized its aircraft sector into the AVIC I and AVIC II consortia to promote greater creative competition.

Y-10 AWACS: Had China’s first attempt to build a jet-powered airline succeeded it is likely, as this wind tunnel model indicates, that the PLA would have developed multiple military versions. Source: Chinese Internet

The record of attempts to produce modern transport aircraft, however, is long. The Shanghai Aircraft Corporation Y-10 was a reverse-engineered version of the Boeing 707-120 that was woefully obsolete by the time it flew in 1980. It was powered by Pratt-Whitney JT3D-7 turbofans taken off of 707s, apparently obtained from Pakistan, and was never put into production. Its designers even envisioned an airborne radar version similar to the U.S. E-3 AWACS, but the PLA did not bite. The Y-10 would have required foreign engines to succeed, which likely contributed to the end of PLA and Chinese government support. Another ambitious design of the 1970s that did not even make it to prototype stage was the Y-9, an attempt to build a large cargo transport similar in size and capability to the U.S. Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. It appears this cargo transport envisioned using modern large turbofans which again were beyond China’s capabilities during the 1970s and 1980s.

Y-9 and STOL Concept: An unrealized program of the 1970s and 1980s was the Y-9 jet transport, which bears a remarkable similarity to the Lockheed-Martin C-141, and is indicative of China’s air transport ambitions of the time. Also a flying model of a canard 4-engine short-take-off-or-landing cargo transport concept demonstrates China willingness to consider unique designs. Source: Chinese Internet

From the late 1980s until recently there has been a long list of largely foreign-propelled attempts to license-produce or co-produce airliners to meet what the foreigners were convinced would be a assured profits from ever increasing demand. These attempts have all basically failed because of two sets of reasons. First, they involved a degree of foreign intellectual property control, amid insufficient domestic demand, which then failed to elicit full Chinese government support for the respective venture. The Chinese government could have forced the sale of large numbers, but it did not. The second set of reasons relate to corporate instability on the foreign end plus lack of results that forced the collapse of seemingly promising deals.

Coincident with a revival in U.S.-China political relations, between 1987 and 1994, the Shanghai Aviation Industry Corporation produced 30 McDonnell Douglas MD-80 twin turbofan airliners from kits. Under the more ambitious "Trunkliner" program it built only two follow-on MD-90-30s out of a planned 20, that was supposed to graduate to full co-production. The deal was terminated in 1998 following Boeing’s 1997 take-over of McDonnell Douglas.[16] China is now offering some of its MD-80/90s for sale to Iran.[17] European failures include the MPC-75, an attempt by Germany’s Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) and the China National Aero-Industry Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) to build a 60-85 seat regional airliner. Then the Fokker FA-X120 became the basis for the 100-seat AE-100 proposal by Aero International Regional, which then became Aero International Asia, which was then absorbed by Airbus, and the aircraft was recast as the AE31X. While the AE31X was never built in China, did become the basis for the Airbus A318 small regional airliner.[18] Then earlier this decade Germany’s Fairchild Dornier failed to secure co-production for its 728/928 regional jet. Then in 2002 Brazil’s Embraer spent $40 million to build a production plant in Harbin for its ERJ-145 regional jet, only to sell 16 for a line that can make 24 a year.[19] This depressing record led aviation expert Richard Aboulafia to lament in his sardonic Blog that China is where Western aircraft makers usually go to die.[20]

Aboulafia was aiming his criticism at late 2005 proposal by Airbus to build a final assembly line in China for the 150-seat Airbus A320 airliner. While it seemed that in late 2005 that Airbus was cooling to the idea, the opposite is now the case. In June 2006 Airbus and China announced that the port city of Tianjin, not too far from Beijing, had been selected for the assembly line.[21] A final Airbus decision whether to proceed with the program is expected in September 2006. Airbus hopes to raise its 39 percent share of the Chinese airliner market, compared to the 61 percent held by chief rival Boeing. As Airbus hopes to rely on kit-produced components shipped from Europe, it will have to create an efficient and well-trained force to insure its A320s have the same credibility as their European-made counterparts.

Signs Of Change: ARJ-21

Though Western companies faced consistent failure in seeking to co-produce large aircraft in China, the Chinese government has not lost its desire to become an eventual large aircraft producer. By 2002 China was ready to launch what will become the first advanced jetliner to be built in China, the 90-seat Advanced Regional Jet, or ARJ-21. In contrast to previous foreign cooperative attempts, China placed itself firmly in charge of the ARJ-21 program, instead seeking to acquire the best foreign advice and components. It sought consulting advice from Boeing and Antonov for the airframe and wings. In 2002 it chose the 18,500lb thrust U.S. General Electric CF-34-10A turbofan engine, similar to the General Electric engine used by the successful Embraer E-170/190 regional jet. Other U.S. companies involved include Hamilton Sunstrand for power systems, Rockwell Collins for avionics, Honeywell and Parker Hannifin for fly-by-wire flight controls, and Parker Hannifin for hydraulics. With substantial foreign inputs, the ARJ-21 will then become the first advanced jetliner to be built in China and then offered for foreign sale.

ARJ-21: This is likely to become China’s first successful “indigenous” passenger and cargo jetliner, and will provide extensive experience that will likely be applied to a larger 150-seat airliner. Source: RD Fisher

The AVIC-1 Commercial Aircraft Company (ACAC) has also spread component construction among other AVIC-1 members including Chengdu (nose), Xian Aircraft (fuselage and wing), Shenyang Aircraft (vertical stabilizer), and final assembly by the Shanghai Aviation Industry Group. The first flight is expected in early 2008 and it is hoped to gain Chinese certification and enter service in 2009.[22] ACAC also hope to gain U.S. and European certification in order to facilitate ARJ-21 sales in both markets. So far about 40 have been ordered by Chinese airlines and foreign sales could begin in 2011. Future versions will include the 105-seat ARJ-21-900, dedicated cargo and business versions, of which the later can be extended to a range of 6,110km. The extended-range version might also eventually be used for military missions, following the example of the similarly sized Embraer ERJ-145 which has been modified for AWACS and maritime surveillance missions.

And just as important, China will be able to combine the copious knowledge and experience it will gain from the ARJ-21, plus the lessons of the failures of the 1990s, not to mention the insights gained from producing aircraft parts for Boeing and Airbus, and potential Airbus final assembly, and apply them to the development of its next-generation transport. The 1990s saw the widespread adoption of new computer aided design/ computer aided manufacturing (CADCAM) technologies in the Chinese aerospace sector, resulting in more rapid design turnaround. China has also imported advanced machine tools and composite fabrication technology. No doubt, China hopes to gain further insights into advanced composite technology when enters into component manufacturing agreements to assist Boeing’s new B-787 Dreamliner.

What is also different now is that the ARJ-21 and the decision to begin development of a new 150-seat airliner during the 2006-2010 Five Year Plan come at a time of anticipated positive growth in China’s civil aviation sector. During this Five Year Plan period alone Chinese officials anticipate the purchase of about 700 new airliners, expanding China’s fleet to over 1,500, which could grow to 4,000 by 2025.[23] China also plans to build 48 new airports during this five-year period, increasing their number to 190, then growing to 220 by 2020. China is also allowing more competitive structuring to take place in its airline sector. In early June 2006 Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific airlines, one of the most competitive international airlines, was allowed to acquire the Macau-based Dragonair and trade significant cross-ownership with Air China, enabling the creation of a new Chinese "alliance" giving Cathay the benefits of Dragonair’s domestic network and Air China’s international networks.[24] Should such an alliance be allowed to pursue greater efficiencies it may become stronger by earning market share and attracting wider investors. China will also see growth in its air cargo transport sector,[25] which will help to subsidize the development of new military transports.

Signs of Change II: Shaanxi Y-9 And Its Derivatives

A second sign that China is making progress in developing new transport aircraft is a series of new versions of the old Shaanxi Y-8 which have appeared in rapid succession over the last two years. Even though it is based on a Ukrainian/Russian design that first flew in 1957, it is possible that with a complete redesign that new versions could meet with domestic and foreign sales success that has eluded China’s only large transport design. Shaanxi’s quick success, however, is again largely dependant on foreign assistance. But what is different is that China is already taking design knowledge gained from the new Y-8 variant and is creating new special mission versions before a dedicated cargo version is put into production. The June 3 crash, if it involved a new-model Y-8, may indicate that such success comes with a prices, especially if demand for rapid results led to design or production short-cuts which have now proven fatal.

The Shaanxi Y-8 is a copy of the Antonov An-12 Cub that China started building in 1969, with a first flight in 1974. But it saw a low production rate due to limitations like lack of pressurization that would allow for useful high-altitude flying. After getting help from Lockheed-Martin during the 1980s the pressurized Y-8C did not fly until 1990. Shaanxi then went on to develop additional variants, each with minor improvements. This changed with the Y-8F600, first announced in 2001. This version promised to incorporate a highly redesigned fuselage, a new modern cockpit, a new wing, and most important, modern Pratt and Whitney Canada PW150B turboprop engines with modern R408 six-bladed composite-material propellers made by Britian’s Dowty Corporation. While Shaanxi thought the first flight would occur in 2005, sources indicate this will now happen in 2006.[26]

Y8F600: A model of the Y-8F600 seen during the 2004 Zhuhai Airshow. While it may not fly until later in 2006, China has already made more important use of the design work intended for this aircraft. Source: RD Fisher

Critical to Y-8’s revival has been the May 2001 establishment of a new consulting arrangement with the Ukraine’s Antonov Bureau.[27] Antonov signed an additional agreement with Shaanxi and the China Aviation Industries Corporation Two (AVIC II) in November 2002. This relationship began apparently with no consideration or compensation for China’s previous copies of the An-12. As explained by one source, Antonov engineers have produced design work for China’s First Aircraft Design Institute, responsible for design work on large aircraft. Antonov engineers have redesigned the Y-8’s wing and fuselage and have performed design work that has been applied by Chinese engineers at Shaanxi to several new variants of the Y-8. Antonov’s work on the wing, for example, has increased the Y-8’s fuel capacity by 50 percent.[28]

Old Inspiration: Antonov’s An-10, a passenger carrying predecessor to the An-12, seen during a 2003 visit to the Monino Museum outside Moscow, has apparently inspired Antonov’s efforts to upgrade the Shaanxi Y-8. Source: RD Fisher

Another important contribution to Shaanxi’s new aircraft production capabilities has been the absorption new composite material fabrication technology. Shaanxi’s website and other promotional materials indicate it has imported a great deal of machinery needed to master composite technology. Composites materials combine polymer fibers and resins in precise configurations to produce materials with far greater strength and endurance than metals of equivalent weights. Success with this technology will allow Shaanxi to master the development larger aircraft than the Y-8. However, the production, curing and molding of composites requires exacting precision as the stresses of flight would cause to slightest flaw to contribute to airframe failure.

Y-8X to Y-9: An early product of Antonov’s collaboration with the First Aircraft Design Institute was the Y-8X revealed at the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow. At the time this was viewed as a very ambitious project for China, which had just started on the Y-8F600, itself an ambitious upgrade for the Y-8 by Chinese standards. In essence, the Y-8X proposed to match the performance of the Lockheed-Martin C-130J, but at much less cost. It promised a 30-ton payload, up from the 20-ton payload of the Y-8, and approaching the 35-ton payload of the An-70 and the EADS A-400M.[29]

Since 2002 there has been no significant reports of progress regarding the Y-8X design, however, in 2005 Shaanxi began a process of gradually revealing its Y-9 transport aircraft program. This began in January 2005 when Chinese television revealed a brand-new Shaanxi aircraft that was clearly a highly-modified Y-8, to include a redesigned fuselage nose area and empennage, or rear-fuselage area. It was powered by what appeared to be Chinese-made engines, but those were equipped with a new type of modern six-bladed propeller. Over the summer of 2005 additional reporting from the Chinese press began to reveal more, with the designation "Y-9" confirmed by the time of the September 2005 Beijing Airshow.

Shaanxi Y-9: This is a Shaanxi-produced artist’s projection of the Y-9 medium transport. Source:

A Shaanxi brochure released before the Beijing show explained the Y-9 to indeed be a significant upgrade of the Y-8, to include many of the design features apparently intended for the Y-8F600. In fact, the dimensions of the Y-9F600 and the Y-9 are identical.[30] One major difference is that the Y-9 will be powered by Chinese WJ-6C turboprop engines, not the Pratt Whitney PW150B. The engines will also use Chinese-made JL-4 composite-material propellers that look very much like the Dowty R406. While a Dowty role in the JL-4 cannot be confirmed, a loophole in British dual-use military technology export policy that allows for "co-production" but not "sale" might account for the new Chinese propeller. The Y-9 will have a modern "glass" cockpit with digital multi-function displays (MFDs) to allow reductions in crew size and a fully pressurized fuselage capable of lifting its maximum payload of 20 tons out to 1,000km. Shaanxi has produced illustrations which show the Y-9 can carry up to 96 troops, or a light tank, two attack helicopters, a short-range ballistic missile, in addition to lose or palletized cargo. If the Y-9 performs as advertised, then it may constitute a very long-awaited success for China’s aircraft sector: an economical as well as capable medium-size military transport.

Y-9 Payload Options: This illustration from Shaanxi demonstrates payload options for the Y-9. Source:

However, it is curious that Shaanxi and AVIC II have apparently chosen to supersede the Y-8F600 with the Y-9. It may be that the PLA fears U.S. opposition should the Canadian subsidiary of the U.S.-owned Pratt and Whitney supply large numbers of PW150B engines to power PLA Air Force transports. This will certainly ease China’s ability to export the Y-9 to allied regimes like Iran, as well as to a wider range of countries that cannot afford the C-130 or A-400M. Over the next decade the West may become increasingly familiar with the Y-9 and its various derivatives.

Y-9 Loading Light Tank: This Shaanxi illustration demonstrates that one design objective for the Y-9 is to carry at least one of the PLA’s new ZLC-2000 airborne light tanks. Source:

Specialized variants: In its ordering of priorities, the PLA has preferred that Shaanxi use the new technology and Y-8 modifications presumably for the Y-9 to instead support the creation of a new series of "special mission" aircraft before the completion of the Y-9. However, it should be expected that when China begins to produce new "large" turbofan powered passenger jets, they will be modified so that these missions can be performed from these new higher and faster flying aircraft. Since early 2005 these new Y-8/Y-9 variants have included:

1. "Balance Beam" AWACS variant: The first to emerge in the January-February 2005 period was a new airborne warning and control (AWACS) aircraft. It featured a new fixed linear phased-array radar similar to the Swedish Ericsson PS-890, that was first seen in early 2001 atop a Y-8F200. If the Chinese radar had a range approaching that of the Swedish radar, reportedly about 350km for a fighter aircraft, and 300km for a surface warship,[31] it would be formidable on the Taiwan Strait. In addition, its active phased-array structure lends it to development into an electronic warfare tool with the potential to focus electronic beams so as to "fry" enemy electronics. The new aircraft, however, featured the new nose structure also featured on the Y-9, but a new rounded empennage structure. This new empennage bears a striking similarity to that of the Antonov An-10, a passenger transport predecessor to the An-12, which first flew in 1956.

Asian sources estimate that the PLA will build at least six of these new AWACS[32] to compliment the KJ-2000 AWACS based on Beriev A-50. Regarding potential exports the "Y-9 AWACS" will likely be much less expensive than the larger Ilyushin Il-76 based AWACS, and might in the future prove an efficient "force multiplier" for exported Chengdu FC-1 and J-10 multi-role fighters. Even if as suspected, the second prototype for this aircraft fell victim to either an engine or airframe failure, it is likely that the relative low cost and weapon potential of this aircraft/radar combination will merit continued PLA support for this program.

Balance Beam AWACS: While some believe the Y-8/Y-9 “Balance Beam” AWACS is in competition with the KJ-2000, it is just as likely that it will serve as a low-cost compliment. Source: Chinese Internet

2. "Saucer"AWACS Variant: In the late 1990s Internet source photos appeared of wind-tunnel testing models, and of what may have been a full-scale Y-8 modified with a more conventional "saucer" shape AWACS radar array. Earlier this decade it was assumed that this AWACS program had been dropped in favor of the Israeli-assisted A-50/Phalcon program. However, in March and April 2006 a series of internet-source photos appears to indicate this AWACS program was revived, but in a new Y-8 airframe featuring many of the Antonov-inspired improvements. It is probable that the "saucer" is in competition with the "balance beam" program. But Asian military sources also suggest that the Y-8 based AWACS are in competition with the Il-76 based AWACS program,[33] even though the later offers longer endurance and larger crew capacity. One reason for this competition may be that the Il-76 AWACS remains dependent upon foreign technology sources to a degree that makes the presumably "indigenous" Y-8 AWACS more attractive. At a minimum, this redundancy in AWACS programs illustrates the significant resources China is pouring into new airborne electronic warfare platforms.

Saucer AWACS: The PLA has revived an earlier Y-8 AWACS program, this time on the Y-8/Y-9 special mission platform, perhaps to compete with the Y-8/Y-9 Balance Beam AWACS program. Source: Chinese Internet

3. New ELINT or Radar Variant: A third variant to use most of the same airframe modifications emerged in April 2005, when Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Shaanxi factory. This variant featured two large electronic arrays mounted on both sides of the forward fuselage. The exact purpose of these arrays has not been revealed, but mission speculation has included electronic or signals intelligence (ELINT/SIGINT), or a new active phased-array radar to support ground-mapping missions for ground forces much like the U.S. Northrop-Grumman E-8 JSTARS. If it were similar to JSTARS, then it too could potentially be developed into an active electronic warfare weapon. So far only one example is known to have been built. Such aircraft would give the PLA High Command and key ground-force commanders an immediate advantage in combat situational awareness over opposing forces, especially on Taiwan.

Radar or ELINT: This special mission Y-8/Y-9 is outfitted with cheek arrays configured for ground-mapping radar or for an electronic intelligence mission. Source: Chinese Internet

4. Command/Control variant: Then in October 2005 Internet-source photos appeared of a fourth new Y-8 variant, this one using the new empennage but retaining an old-style glass-covered nose area. This version features an apparent satellite communications antenna on top of the fuselage, and then about ten high-frequency communication antennae. Such an outfit would be consistent with a command and control mission, to at least provide a more survivable airborne platform for major force commanders should ground-based facilities come under attack. There is no indication this command/control variant is dedicated to strategic-nuclear missions like the U.S. E-6 Mercury, but that might in the future prove attractive to the PLA.

Command and Control: This latest version of the new Y-8/Y-9 special mission series is outfitted with satellite communication and high-frequency communication antennae consistent with a command/control mission. Source: Chinese Internet

The PLA Navy has been using its own special mission variants of an earlier Y-8 model, most likely the Y-8F100. What is called the "Y-8 MPA," for maritime patrol aircraft, has featured heavily in a rapid spike in the number of time Japanese aircraft have had to scramble to intercept PLA aircraft approaching Japanese airspace. In 2005 Japanese fighters had to scramble 107 times to intercept PLA aircraft, an eight-fold increase over 2004.[34] This is due in part to ongoing maritime territorial and resource sovereignty disputes between China and Japan. In addition, the PLA Navy uses another version of the Y-8 outfitted with the British Racal/Thales Skymaster airborne early warning (AEW) radar. One such Y-8 AEW was featured in the high-profile Russia-China "Peace Mission 2005" combined arms exercises in August last year. This Y-8 has also been used in exercises to help target anti-ship missiles on PLA Navy destroyers. Finally, in 2005 a third PLA Navy Y-8 variant was revealed, for active electronic warfare. Equipped with two sets of antennae it can ensure constant coverage on an area to jam enemy radar and communications links, while the aircraft if flying a set pattern.

PLA Navy Special Variants: Photographed flying together is a PLA Navy Y-8 with a nose-mounted British Skymaster AEW radar, and a newer variant equipped with what appears to be antennae for electronic warfare jamming/attack missions. Source: Chinese Internet

Large Cargo Ambitions: So Far, Antonov In The Lead

With the announcement that China will be funding the development of new large transport aircraft in the current 2006 to 2010 Five Year Plan, it is not surprising that there are proposals to build new large cargo aircraft as well. According to Ukrainian sources it appears that the PLA will favor the Antonov bureau to help it develop a new type of large "strategic" cargo transport. Earlier this decade Antonov and China had discussed the possibility of Chinese co-production for the 35-ton payload turbo-propfan An-70.[35] But in early 2006 Ukrainian sources noted that Antonov has proposed a $1 billion project to develop a new version of its An-70. This new version will instead be powered by turbofan engines and have a lengthened fuselage to allow a total cargo payload of between 50 and 60 tons.[36] This will approach the 77-ton capacity of the U.S. C-17 and may exceed the 47-ton payload of the Russian Il-76. The wide fuselage of the An-70 also means this new transport will be able to accommodate a wide variety of payloads, to include heavy armored vehicles. With its added length it is possible this new aircraft could drop up to four ZLC-2000 airborne tanks, versus three for the Il-76. If realized, this new aircraft will give China an "indigenous" strategic transport that will enable its leadership to more rapidly project "hard force" and "soft force" far beyond East Asia.

An-70 As Basis For New PLA Transport: Antonov is proposing co-development of a larger turbofan powered version of its financially troubled An-70, shown here in model form at the 2004 Zhuhai Airshow. Source: RD Fisher

This program will fall under the leadership of the AVIC-II Chinese aviation consortium, and there is some competition from what is so far a smaller twin-engine transport proposal from AVIC-1. However, Ukrainian sources note the PLA favors the more ambitious Antonov/AVIC-II proposal.[37] If it goes forward this program will be a boon for Antonov, which has suffered from the Ukraine’s separation from the former Soviet Union, causing Moscow to nearly end its previous financial support for the An-70. A key variable for program success will be China’s development of new high-bypass turbofan engines. These could be purchased from the Ukraine, but would then make the aircraft program and potential exports vulnerable to political pressures. However, should the new "Chinese" transport prove successful, it will surely compete with future Antonov products, as well as with the 35-ton Airbus A-400M and the U.S. C-17.

There is also a possibility that AVIC-1 could partner with Russia’s Ilyushin to compete with the AVIC-II/Antonov proposal.[38] Should Ukrainian and Russian co-development programs falter or prove unaffordable then the PLA may exercise the option to purchase even more Russian Ilyushin Il-76 transports. Soon after the August 2005 "Peace Mission 2005" China-Russia combined arms exercises, it was reported that China had agreed to a $1.5 billion deal to purchase an additional 30-34 Il-76MD transports and 4-8 Il-78M dedicated aerial refueling aircraft.[39] This may represent a 150 percent increase in the PLAAF’s Il-76 inventory at the bargain price of about $40 million per aircraft. In addition, this level of Chinese financial investment in Ilyushin will give it more resources with which to mount a counter-proposal to Antonov’s improved An-70.

PLAAF Il-76 In Action: This PLA Il-76 transport is seen dropping a ZLC-2000 airborne light tank during the August 2005 “Peace Mission 2005” China-Russia combined arms exercises. Source: Chinese Internet

There is an increasing likelihood that the PLA is interested in either purchasing or co-producing the even larger 120 to 150-ton payload Antonov An-124 Ruslan. There have been repeated reports to this end.[40] Co-producing the An-124 would entail an even larger Chinese financial commitment and prove even more ambitious than the new version of the An-70. A future Chinese purchase of An-124s may be more realistic, budgets willing. Antonov has been seeking investors to support a revival of An-124 production and estimates future demand for 50 to 80 of these large airlifters.[41] Antonov has developed the A-124-100M version that would raise its payload capacity to 150 tons, with a range of 2,820km, and has plans for the A-124-300, that would lift 150 tons out to 8,100km.[42]

MegaLift Dreams: Conceptual illustrations of a potential Chinese version of the Antonov An-124. China may also purchase this 150-ton payload giant. Source: Internet


[2] On June 4 the Hong Kong paper Ta Kung Pao carried the first suggestion the crashed aircraft was a KJ-2000 AWACS, this was then repeated in "Crash jet 'was early warning aircraft' Plane lost in disaster that killed 40 was Chinese version of Russian craft: report," South China Morning Post, June 6, 2006.

[3] Joseph Kahn, "Aircraft Crash Sets Back China's Military Efforts," The New York Times, June 6, 2006; Michael Sheridan, "Sabotage Fear as China’s Secret Weapon Crashes," The Sunday Times, June 11, 2006.

[4] "Funeral of Engineer Killed in Airborne Early Warning Aircraft Crash Conducted with Solemnity," Ming Pao, June 10, 2006.

[5] Frederick A. Johnsen, Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, Warbird Tech Series, Volume 39, North Branch MN: Specialty Press, 2005, pp. 6-9. Author note: this very detailed review of the C-141 was printed in China.

[6] "Upgraded C-5M debut," Flight International, May 23-29, 2006, p. 4.

[7] Tao Shelan, "Military Expert: In China’s Peaceful Development It is Necessary To Uphold the Dialectical Strategic Thinking of Making the Country Rich and Building Up Its Military Strength," Zhongguo Xinwen She, May 16, 2006.

[8] China’s interest in aircraft carriers is usefully reviewed in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006,, and also see, Richard D. Fisher, Jr., "2005: A Turning Point For China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions," IASC Web Page, January 28, 2006,

[9] "China to resume jumbo aircraft production," Xinhua, March 11, 2006,

[10] "China's large aircraft dream to come true by 2015: NPC deputy," Xinhua, March 11, 2006,

[11] Nicholas Ionides and Leithen Francis, "China starts study into 150 seater," Flight International, March 23, 2004.

[12] "Liu Daxiang Introduction," Chinese Academy of Engineering,

[13] "Professor Liu Daxiang, Academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering Appointed as the lifelong adjunct Professor Of Xi'an Jiaotong University," Xi'an Jiaotong University Web Page,

[14] Harlan Jencks, "The General Armaments Department." in James Mulvenon and Andrew N.D. Yang eds., The PLA As Organization, Washington, D.C.: RAND, 2002,

[15] "China Mulls Building Own Large Aircraft," Iran-Daily, June 14 2005,

[16] "TrunkLiner programme is scrapped," Flight International, July 29, 1998.

[17] "Iran to purchase 13 MD90s from China," IranMania, January 9, 2006, =CurrentAffairs

[18] "Déjà vu," Flight International, May 22, 2001.

[19] Nicholas Ionides, "ERJ-145 deal earns reprieve for Chinese assembly line," Flight International, January 24, 2006.

[20] Richard Aboulafia, "December 2005 Letter,"

[21] "Airbus Chinese A320 Final Assembly Line to be Located in Tianjin," Airbus Press Release, June 8, 2006.

[22] Leithen Francis, "Chinese turn," Flight International, February 14, 2006.

[23] "China to spend on airports," Taipei Times, March 1, 2006,

[24] Tom Mitchell and Justine Lau, "Stars align for Cathay’s time in the sun," Financial Times, June 12 2006.

[25] Leithen Francis, "New cargo carriers boom in China," Flight International, April 11, 2006., p. 12.

[26] Interview, Defexpo, New Delhi, January 2006.

[27] Interfax-Ukraine, September 4, 2002.

[28] Interview, Defexpo, New Delhi, January 2006.

[29] Robert Hewson, "Y-8X," Jane’s Defence Weekly, December 11, 2002.

[30] Robert Hewson, "All-Chinese Special Missions Platform Makes Appearance," Jane’s Defence Weekly, December 14, 2005.

[31] Robert Hewson, "Erieye: Sweden’s Eyes on the World," International Airpower Review, Winter 2003/2004, p. 27.

[32] Interview, March 2006.

[33] Interview, March 2006.

[34] "Japan Scrambled Jets 107 Times Against Chinese Planes in FY '05," Jiji Press, April 20, 2006.

[35] Andrei Kirillov and Yevgeny Solovyov, "China wants broader cooperation with Ukraine aircraft maker," ITAR-TASS, September 18, 2003.

[36] Interview, Defexpo, New Delhi, January 2006.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Interfax-AVN, May 3, 2005.

[39] Reports about final numbers of Il-76/78s vary. See, "China Buys 38 Military Transport Aircraft From Russia for $850M," MosNews, September 8, 2005, ; Dimitry Kozolov, AviaPort Ru, December 12, 2005, ; and the 2006 Department of Defense PLA Report notes that "40" will be purchased.

[40] Robert Sae-Liu, "China approaches Ukraine for heavylift aircraft," Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 29, 2004.

[41] Andrew Doyle, "Volga-Dnepr calls for resumed Antonov An-124 production ahead of its 2007 IPO," Flight International, April 11, 2006; Vladimir Karnozov, "Companies unite to study Ruslan production restart," Flight International, March 9, 2004.

[42] "An-124-300 proposal could double Ruslan range," Flight International, July 1, 2003.

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