The past few years have seen China unveil an ever-growing list of new military hardware. This three-part miniseries will take a brief look at what this all means for China, its neighbours, and geopolitical security.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has kicked off the New Year by parading another new piece of military hardware for the world to see. Last month saw the inaugural flight of the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) first indigenously-built long-distance airlifter.
At first glance, the Y-20 ‘heavy air freighter’ does not seem to carry much importance. It is, after all, just a big cargo plane. It has no game-changing combat capabilities, nor does it dramatically change the Asia-Pacific military calculus. But like the introduction of new baubles to a children’s sandbox, novelty elicits certain inevitable responses. A wider, nuanced examination reveals that the big cargo plane does in fact carry some strategic implications, both on its own and as the most recent manifestation of China’s rising technological prowess.
What Does It Do?
The Y-20 is the latest in a long list of official unveilings aimed at showcasing a burgeoning Chinese military industry. In the past few years, Beijing has made public a litany of satellite launches, several modern warship classes, two stealth fighter prototypes, and a refurbished ex-Soviet aircraft carrier, to name a few. In all cases, China was quick to highlight the indigenous development and production (or refurbishment, in the case of the aircraft carrier) of each platform as tangible evidence of Chinese high-technology industries reaching maturation.
These announcements were not just for political chest-thumping. Like its predecessors, the Y-20 is meant to fill a specific PLA capability gap. A new airlifter may not contribute to enhancing naval or air superiority, but it does address the often-neglected aspect of military logistics. As recently demonstrated by France’s challenges in getting equipment and personnel into Mali, airlift is absolutely critical in strategic mobility. Even the most advanced militaries are rendered impotent if they cannot get to a problem spot quickly and in sufficient force.
The Y-20 thus gives the PLA greater capacity in transporting its equipment over long distances. It augments the PLAAF’s existing fleet of Russian-made cargo planes and allows the PLA to deploy faster in and outside of China’s borders. Similarly, the heavy lift capability allows for better humanitarian disaster response – something China has had its fair share of in recent years. Indigenous production also means Beijing will not have to rely on Moscow for future airframes, and (more cynically) sets China up to export the Y-20 in the growing market of global heavy airlift contracting.
But Does it Work?
A closer look at the Y-20, however, reveals a bit of tarnish under the new shine. For one, it is still in development. It will be several years before the final product is serially produced and operationally deployed. Until then, its vaunted capabilities remain theoretical paper estimates. Second, even when operational, it is unlikely that the Y-20 will be as capable as the modern benchmark airlifter, the American Boeing C-17 Globemaster III (to which the Y-20 looks suspiciously similar). The Chinese aircraft relies on old-design Russian engines that are far inferior to those on the C-17. The use of composite materials in the Globemaster’s construction is a key endurance performance contributor – an area of technology that China has not yet mastered. Worse, the C-17’s global range is also made possible by the US Air Force’s widespread aerial refueling capabilities. China currently lags behind here as well.
Indeed, most of the PLA’s new equipment does not fare well under close scrutiny. For all the pomp and circumstance that Beijing puts into its hardware unveilings, virtually every platform has technological and/or capability limitations. Both stealth fighter prototypes suffer from a lack of high-performance turbofan engines, a critical weakness in Chinese aviation technology. The PLA Navy’s (PLAN) ‘new’ aircraft carrier is inherently limited by its ski jump deck and a nascent naval aviation program. The new warships meant to escort the carrier are equipped with largely unproven combat systems while the PLAN’s ocean-going submarines remain a generation or more behind its Western counterparts, especially in noise reduction and endurance. More generally, the PLA has not developed a robust combined arms doctrine of interoperability across its three services, a force-multiplying hallmark of most modern militaries.
All these shortfalls beg the question: if China’s new baubles are not really as shiny as they seem, why reveal them at all? A child would be loath to bring an inferior toy, new as it may be, to the communal sandbox. Why risk others’ ridicule by announcing its acquisition?
Ernest Chong graduated from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He also holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from King’s College London. Due to structural unemployment, he currently volunteers his time as assistant publisher atGlobal Brief magazine and as chase/technical producer with Beyond the Headlines radio show. His areas of interest focus on defence and security issues in Canada, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific.