The development of the Y-20 heavy transport aircraft will benefit the military and civilian aviation industries if engine problems can be overcome, military experts said.
Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun confirmed last week it is developing the Y-20 military transport aircraft as part of the People's Liberation Army's modernisation drive and for service in humanitarian and disaster-relief efforts.
Three days earlier, on December 24, several photographs believed to be showing China's first domestically produced heavy-lift military transport plane were posted on a mainland website by military enthusiasts. The aircraft bears a striking resemblance to the US Air Force's C-17 transporter, built by Boeing, but appears to be of a size that might fit somewhere between the C-17 and the Airbus A400M.
As such, it appears that the Y-20 will be wide enough to accommodate most large PLA combat and support vehicles, including its Type 99 series tanks, which weigh close to 55 tonnes.
Yang did not say when the Y-20 would be ready for service, only saying that "the research and development of the large transport aircraft is going forward as planned".
The photographs on the Chaoda Story Land website, a forum for military enthusiasts, were purportedly taken from long range at Xian Aircraft's Yanliang airfield in Shaanxi .
Xian Aircraft Industry is a subsidiary of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the leading military aircraft maker.
Some features of the new transporter can be identified despite the poor quality of the images. It is powered by four jet engines that appear to be Russian Soloviev D-30KU engines, used on Russian Ilyushin Il-62M and Tupolev TU-154M airliners and the Ilyushin Il-76MD, a multi-purpose, four-engine strategic airlifter.
The PLA Air Force operates a small fleet of Russian-made Il-76 transporters powered by the D-30KU engine.
But Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Defence Review, said the Y-20 would not use D-30KU engines when development and research was completed.
He said the D-30KU was a noisy fuel-guzzler and even the Russians were abandoning it. China was likely to use a homegrown aircraft engine such as the CJ-1000A displayed at the Zhuhai air show in November, he said.
"I have no idea about the Chinese engines that will be used by the Y-20 as it is still being developed," Chang said. "But it will be a significant jump for China's aviation industry if it successfully develops the Y-20, especially for its larger aircraft projects which can be used for both military and civilian purposes."
Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said the Y-20 project was still in its early days.
"Like other aircraft projects, the Y-20 project is still facing the same problem - engines," he said. "But if we overcome such a knotty problem, the PLA's ability to project military force on the battlefield or send relief materials to disaster-hit areas would definitely be strengthened."