Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The little engines that can't

The Chinese aviation industry has been busy lately. Two stealthy looking fighters made big headlines, although their capabilities are suspect.

Now the Y-20 transport aircraft has made its debut, and the Chinese military says it will "enhance its global power projection."

It's tough not to notice the similarities between the C-17 Globemaster III, the U.S. Air Force's workhorse transport aircraft, and the Y-20. The more cynical among us might suggest that the same Boeing blueprint is the basis for both--although the shared characteristics could just be a matter of two groups of engineers arriving at the same conclusions (which happened, for instance, with the Space Shuttle and its apparent doppelganger, the Buran).

C-17: Separated...

Y-20: ... at birth?

Anyway, graceful though the Y-20 may appear, it looks like it will be beset with many of the same issues that undercut the J-20 and J-31. Chief among those issues: the engines. You can build a spacious cargo hold, ingenious ramp design and robust wings, but without efficient engines, the power-projection abilities of a cargo aircraft are limited.

What's more, as defensetech.org notes, there is some doubt that China could have produced such a large airframe using mainly composite materials--a key factor in the C-17's long legs.
Chang also noted that the C-17’s long-range performance is possible because of the airplane’s composite materials, the manufacture of which the Chinese have struggled with to date.  And the Y-20 was likely to take at least another five years to enter operational service, he added.

So in the end, although another (literally) big project has (literally) gotten off the ground, the People's Liberation Army Air Force remains squarely behind the eight ball in terms of airlifting capability.

"Never start a land war in Asia," a wise man once said. This is dead-on in terms of China, which, thanks to geography and tremendous manpower, is not on anyone's list of places to invade. But despite all the talk of "strategic pivots" to face an "expansionist" China, the People's Liberation Army is unable to project much of its might far from home. The military cargo plane that can't fly from one end of China to the other without refueling is just the latest example.

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