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The Chinese Air Force is quickly moving to expand its fleet of air-to-air refueling aircraft to close a tanker deficit with the U.S. and more fully project global air power.
The U.S. operates as many as 625 tanker aircraft, whereas China is listed as only having three, according to Global Firepower. This lack of tankers would limit or even imperil any Chinese effort to launch a large-scale cross-continental air campaign.
China already has fewer 5th-generation aircraft when compared to the U.S., NATO and Pacific allies. The absence of tankers makes it very difficult for Chinese fighter jets, with a likely combat radius of 300-to-500 miles, to travel thousands of miles across a continent or ocean area. China can still easily reach Japan, Taiwan and possibly Australia, India and parts of Southeast Asia, however a cross-continental air-attack is likely out of reach.
New Tanker-Variant C-130s and Y-20s Cargo Planes
There are a few things China is doing quickly to address this deficit. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is developing a new tanker-variant of its C-130 and C-17-like Y-20 Cargo plane.
“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,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.
China may be accelerating the pace of construction of these Y-20 tankers to align with its evolving plan to achieve global domination by 2049.
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Should the attack ranges of its fighter jets and bombers such as the new H-20 be able to double their range, it opens up an entirely new mission envelope for the PLAAF. This opens up an entirely new sphere of attack options for China.
Nonetheless, the lack of tankers is likely one of many reasons why China is vigorously expanding it 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.
Any ability to base aircraft in parts of Northern Africa greatly improves the PLAAF’s ability to reach the European continent for potential air attacks. This is extremely significant, because without a larger tanker fleet or substantial forward positioning, China would be ill equipped to handle any kind of air confrontation on a large scale beyond its own immediate region.
At the same time, a lack of tankers does not limit China’s ability to attack Taiwan or possibly even Japan. Japan, however, can be as far as 1,000 miles off the coast from parts of mainland China, depending upon take-off point. Therefore refueling, or amphibious forces, might be needed should China need to launch an invasion of Japan and give its fighter jets reach and dwell time.
Along these lines, a multifunctional Y-20 variant could make a large difference regarding amphibious attacks. Not only could the large cargo aircraft deliver supplies, ground troops or weapons to an amphibious landing area should a beachhead be secured, but it could enable fighter aircraft to help an amphibious attack pursue air superiority.
China is quickly expanding its amphibious assault capacity with new ships and drones, therefore having additional, 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.