China's transport, tanker & heavy lift aircraft


Tirdent

Junior Member
Registered Member
Gloire_bb has it right.

Military transports carry too much extraneous ballast and compromises to be competitive with a commercial airliner as the basis for a tanker. They have big, draggy fuselages for voluminous cargo, complex, heavy high lift devices on the wings for short runway ops and unnecessarily beefy landing gear for unpaved fields, none of which matters in the tanker role. Fuel is a fairly dense payload, so the big fuselage is just a drag penalty and forward basing a scarce high value asset such as a tanker is insanely risky while offering no benefit to its mission, so STOL and rugged landing gear amount to dead weight.

That there are numerous tankers based on military transports can invariably be traced back to three scenarios:

1) You have a small air force that simply doesn't have the budget for dedicated tankers, so the choice is between having the transport fleet perform both jobs or no tanker capability at all.
2) You are cut off from external sources of efficient long-range airliners, and the closest *domestic* approach to one is your biggest military airlifter.
3) You are in the luxurious position of having your fixed-wing tanker needs covered by efficient airliner-derived refuellers and want to complement them with a slow-moving platform for refuelling helos.

Forward basing (STOL & unpaved field capability) hasn't ever been a significant factor as far as I'm aware.

A large-scale example of 3) would be the USMC KC-130s (though their large tanker support isn't organic, rather than being supplied by the USAF), pretty much anywhere else it's a very small niche role though.

The Soviet-era Il-78 grew out of 2), at the time the only serious alternative to the Il-76 platform would have been the Il-86 medium range airliner but its famously lack-lustre payload/range was only very slightly better, so the race was decided by commonality with the freighter fleet. Come the 21st century however and Russia has a perfectly sound (if commercially unsuccessful) long-range airliner in the Il-96 which out-lifts and out-ranges even upgraded Il-76s with variants of the *same* engine (PS-90A) by such a margin that it's not even funny.

Yet they decided to use the Il-76 again in what is one of their biggest post Cold War procurement blunders (apart from funding too many Flanker derivatives, giving MiG endless money for uncompetitive Fulcrum variants instead of the innovative Skat UCAV and generally missing the UAV bandwagon). The reason, in a nutshell, was Ukraine - their shift to the West made the An-70 politically untenable as a Il-76 replacement in the cargo role, and with upgraded Il-76s once more assuming this task, commonality was touted as an argument for the same platform as a tanker. Too bad Il-76 final assembly wasn't actually domestic though (Tashkent, Uzbekistan) and had just collapsed, scuppering the PLAAF order (a few members round here probably recall). This meant they had to expensively move production to Russia and still aren't up to speed with it even as the clean-sheet Y-20 moves into mass production.

Long story short, China currently finds itself in the 2) predicament as well, but at least the Y-20 has fairly modern aerodynamics, unlike the 1960s Il-76. Once it gets WS-20 engines it'll do ok. Ideally they would have collaborated on these issues, with Russia contributing an even better wing design and PS-90A interim engines in exchange for a Y-20 production license and Il-96 tanker sales to China. The latter would go on to fit WS-20 once ready and Russia would soldier on with the PS-90A until the high-thrust PD-14M became available. I guess Ukrainian involvement in the Y-20 made that a non-starter though.
 

latenlazy

Colonel
Gloire_bb has it right.

Military transports carry too much extraneous ballast and compromises to be competitive with a commercial airliner as the basis for a tanker. They have big, draggy fuselages for voluminous cargo, complex, heavy high lift devices on the wings for short runway ops and unnecessarily beefy landing gear for unpaved fields, none of which matters in the tanker role. Fuel is a fairly dense payload, so the big fuselage is just a drag penalty and forward basing a scarce high value asset such as a tanker is insanely risky while offering no benefit to its mission, so STOL and rugged landing gear amount to dead weight.

That there are numerous tankers based on military transports can invariably be traced back to three scenarios:

1) You have a small air force that simply doesn't have the budget for dedicated tankers, so the choice is between having the transport fleet perform both jobs or no tanker capability at all.
2) You are cut off from external sources of efficient long-range airliners, and the closest *domestic* approach to one is your biggest military airlifter.
3) You are in the luxurious position of having your fixed-wing tanker needs covered by efficient airliner-derived refuellers and want to complement them with a slow-moving platform for refuelling helos.

Forward basing (STOL & unpaved field capability) hasn't ever been a significant factor as far as I'm aware.

A large-scale example of 3) would be the USMC KC-130s (though their large tanker support isn't organic, rather than being supplied by the USAF), pretty much anywhere else it's a very small niche role though.

The Soviet-era Il-78 grew out of 2), at the time the only serious alternative to the Il-76 platform would have been the Il-86 medium range airliner but its famously lack-lustre payload/range was only very slightly better, so the race was decided by commonality with the freighter fleet. Come the 21st century however and Russia has a perfectly sound (if commercially unsuccessful) long-range airliner in the Il-96 which out-lifts and out-ranges even upgraded Il-76s with variants of the *same* engine (PS-90A) by such a margin that it's not even funny.

Yet they decided to use the Il-76 again in what is one of their biggest post Cold War procurement blunders (apart from funding too many Flanker derivatives, giving MiG endless money for uncompetitive Fulcrum variants instead of the innovative Skat UCAV and generally missing the UAV bandwagon). The reason, in a nutshell, was Ukraine - their shift to the West made the An-70 politically untenable as a Il-76 replacement in the cargo role, and with upgraded Il-76s once more assuming this task, commonality was touted as an argument for the same platform as a tanker. Too bad Il-76 final assembly wasn't actually domestic though (Tashkent, Uzbekistan) and had just collapsed, scuppering the PLAAF order (a few members round here probably recall). This meant they had to expensively move production to Russia and still aren't up to speed with it even as the clean-sheet Y-20 moves into mass production.

Long story short, China currently finds itself in the 2) predicament as well, but at least the Y-20 has fairly modern aerodynamics, unlike the 1960s Il-76. Once it gets WS-20 engines it'll do ok. Ideally they would have collaborated on these issues, with Russia contributing an even better wing design and PS-90A interim engines in exchange for a Y-20 production license and Il-96 tanker sales to China. The latter would go on to fit WS-20 once ready and Russia would soldier on with the PS-90A until the high-thrust PD-14M became available. I guess Ukrainian involvement in the Y-20 made that a non-starter though.
The Ukrainian involvement tells us that Russia wasn’t interested in collaboration.
 

Tirdent

Junior Member
Registered Member
Given the quality of the decision making on this issue, that could well be the case - extremely damaging though, leaving Russia with inferior solutions in both roles. I guess the most inexcusable part is the failure to adopt the Il-96 as a tanker though (an option which was always available, after all), instead they continued to blow money on futile attempts to push passenger models into a market which had already rejected it.
 

TerraN_EmpirE

Tyrant King
Forward basing (STOL & unpaved field capability) hasn't ever been a significant factor as far as I'm aware.
Actually I would argue it to be a huge one or the Il78.
If you look at Russian fighters there is something you should note they are all rough field designed.

In the bad ol'days of the cold war with fear of world war 3 everywhere the Russians devised there AWACS and Tankers doctrine along with there fighter doctrine based on their second world war experience.
This meant that in the Russian mind the first thing that would happen is all there airbase would be cratered. And second that they may be operating out of air based captured from NATO that were Cratered. In point of fact they are said to have even copied NATO servicing equipment compatibility based on the belief that they would be forced of operate from western European bases. And designed there tanks and IFVs of a light weight to cross partially demolished bridges of a retreating European forces.

As such when we look at there Tankers and AWACS we see very few based on civil air and more based on STOL transports.
But this happens at an interesting point prior to 1970 Both Russia and the West actually had very similar concepts for there first iterations of AWACS and Tankers. Based on Civil AWACS and bomber tankers. Then in the post 1970 the West shifts to penetration tactics and the Russians start basing more and more on il76 phasing out bomber based tanker and airliner based AWACS.
Although Russian aviation has had successive civil aviation assets like IL96 by the time they emerged the Russian mind set in rough fields had become a self fulfilling prophecy as military airfields in the USSR and forward ops in Afghanistan we often poorly maintained. This continued into the 90s. These being the result of economic hardships and hard set doctrine and reality of remote airfields located in the distant sprawl of the massive under populated portions of Russian Siberia.
As such even the sucessor States civil aviation therefore seem to break into three molds. Large legacy dual role aircraft with features for rough fields like the AN148/158 dedicated civilian designs following and partnered with international makers based out of rebuilt airports like Super jet and legacy types based on former military models.
The choice to focus less on tanker versions and AWACS versions of civil aircraft seems mostly budget and remote basing although the Russians have from time to time chosen civil liners for special military mission types like the Tu214 for ELINT, Open Sky and comunications

Now the PLA is I think taking a slightly different tact on this but not far from the same conclusion. That being that in the event of conflict they are more likely to be forward based off island runways. This is why you have the Y8 and Y9 being used more for there AEW and patrol planes vs the western world which is shifting to business jets.
There tanker arm is still new and based off bomber types. Bombers differ from military transports placing more interest in cruise and payload they do need some STOL ability but tend not to wants as much. It remains to be seen what the PLA really aims for in this. We have seen an interests in Y20 for this it may be again a product of forward basing from islands as a mind set. It could be that they take a dual track with another tanker down the way based more on a more cruise efficient design.
 

TerraN_EmpirE

Tyrant King
Long story short, China currently finds itself in the 2) predicament as well, but at least the Y-20 has fairly modern aerodynamics, unlike the 1960s Il-76. Once it gets WS-20 engines it'll do ok. Ideally they would have collaborated on these issues, with Russia contributing an even better wing design and PS-90A interim engines in exchange for a Y-20 production license and Il-96 tanker sales to China. The latter would go on to fit WS-20 once ready and Russia would soldier on with the PS-90A until the high-thrust PD-14M became available. I guess Ukrainian involvement in the Y-20 made that a non-starter though.
Despite how it may seem Russia doesn't need Y20 as much as China needs it. There existing fleet can be overhauled and new birds built.


Russia has a fairly good fleet of Il76 birds that can take care of its cargo.
Second the Il96 is old. Had The Chinese asked for it back in The 90s that would have been fine but it's almost as old as I am now. The Russians proposed reopening a line and development of a new model including tanker in 2015 since then they canceled it.
Next Il96 is a 4 engine bird yet sits between A330-A340 and B767-B777. With the exception of the A340 all of those are twin engine birds. This again is a product of its age. The Russians didn't have the engines reliable and powerful enough to go twin as a result it's less efficient. The Russians accepted this and have been said to be looking in to a twin engine conversion for Il96 in the future which would basically mean a new airliner. If you are the PRC and looking at that I think at this point you would probably have a better bet in investigating domestically with a Comac 929 based tanker than bank on the Russians basically starting from scratch.
 

Tirdent

Junior Member
Registered Member
Actually I would argue it to be a huge one or the Il78.
Nope, I outlined the reasoning above: payload/range (which is the way everybody that can afford it chooses their tanker platforms) and as a tie-breaker commonality with an existing military type. That STOL and unprepared runway capabilities played a role is mostly a Western misconception - given the list of options available to the Soviets at the time you arrive at the Il-76 using very typical tanker selection criteria and without any reference to to austere field operations.

If you look at Russian fighters there is something you should note they are all rough field designed.
What you'll also note is that, until after the Cold War, most of them were not AAR capable (exceptions being the Su-24M and MiG-31, basically). Tankers were primarily strategic assets in the USSR, supporting the nuclear bomber force first and foremost. Their STOL or rough field capability requirements were therefore no more stringent than those of the Tu-95 or Tu-160 bombers they were intended to back up.

Despite how it may seem Russia doesn't need Y20 as much as China needs it. There existing fleet can be overhauled and new birds built.
Upgrades of existing Il-76 would indeed have been a good way to tide the Russian air force over as a temporary solution until a modern Y-20-style replacement arrived, but as new-builds they are hopelessly obsolete, especially in the tanker role.

Second the Il96 is old.
And the Il-76 isn't? It's 20 years older than the Il-96!

Next Il96 is a 4 engine bird yet sits between A330-A340 and B767-B777. With the exception of the A340 all of those are twin engine birds. This again is a product of its age. The Russians didn't have the engines reliable and powerful enough to go twin as a result it's less efficient. The Russians accepted this and have been said to be looking in to a twin engine conversion for Il96 in the future which would basically mean a new airliner. If you are the PRC and looking at that I think at this point you would probably have a better bet in investigating domestically with a Comac 929 based tanker than bank on the Russians basically starting from scratch.
Which is why it failed in the passenger market (you can argue the A340 did too, but it's salvaged by its commonality with the highly successful A330). What's the problem with this in the tanker role though? Tankers are typically a generation behind the very latest commercial airliners, so it could have held its own in that market. Continued Russian efforts to push the Il-96 as a passenger aircraft, rather than aiming it at markets where it was still reasonably competitive for a long time (civilian cargo, where it would have given the very popular second-hand MD-11s a good run for their money & military tanker), are part of the problem, not the solution.

I never proposed China should consider buying a tanker variant *today* - that boat has indeed long since sailed.
 

TerraN_EmpirE

Tyrant King
That STOL and unprepared runway capabilities played a role is mostly a Western misconception
I still argue otherwise.
Austere is a major driver for later Soviet support aircraft.
Farther more a look at other Russian air craft in the weight class points to austere again the IL86 civilian airliner was noted for its complicated landing gear due to issues of Soviet era air port tarmac
Tankers were primarily strategic assets in the USSR, supporting the nuclear bomber force first and foremost. Their STOL or rough field capability requirements were therefore no more stringent than those of the Tu-95 or Tu-160 bombers they were intended to back up.
After all you are not going to get much more fuel from a tanker based at the same bomber base as the bomber. The tanker is there to augment there capabilities by extending range. If your bombers need top off the tanker needs to have enough fuel to share. That means beingncloser to its base.
Commonality is nice but since the airlines were state owned already and most of there bombers were closely related to there airliners. If the Soviets had chosen to they could have gone the same way.

The western conception also comes in as similar concepts are played out like the KC130 used by both the Marines and Airforce due to austere conditions in support of helicopter. As well as fixed wings being forward deployed.
Upgrades of existing Il-76 would indeed have been a good way to tide the Russian air force over as a temporary solution until a modern Y-20-style replacement arrived, but as new-builds they are hopelessly obsolete, especially in the tanker role.
Again prioritys had to be considered. The Russian air force at the moment seems more in need of over haul at the smaller transport level.
There IL476 or what ever the current designation seems better suited to their needs.
And the Il-76 isn't? It's 20 years older than the Il-96!
And built in higher numbers with more upgrades and available airframe to base off with more interest.

It's easier to pitch a Lockheed Martin C130J Super Hercules an established long lived military transport rebuild then it is a Lockheed Martin L1946J Super Starliner airliner.
Using Il96M as a tanker demands that that bird have the numbers built otherwise there is no reason.
Farther more the long lived production of the Il76 makes it more realistic.
What's the problem with this in the tanker role though? Tankers are typically a generation behind the very latest commercial airliners,
Usually due to established lines of commonality reducing parts costs. That's a major driver. That you can buy spare parts easily and find readily accessible training and maintenance. This is why there is also interest in retiring 707 based aircraft despite it having much more success in sales eventually spare parts and training dry up.
Once the IL96 might have proved a good bird for the job in an alternative 1990 had it more interest and investment but with maybe 30 built it didn't make economic sense as already it was on life support with most of the orders being Russian government already. By contrast A340 which yeah did kinda bomb because of 4 engines in the twin jet age has over 150 still flying. Had you said TU204 it might make some more sense as well so many are in storage. They built 85 or so and most of the buyers went belly up. Could get a fleet pretty cheap these days and do what you want to them.

Over all twin engines are more efficient for tankers and being honest if they were still intent on keeping Il78 around than what would be the mission? If you have that big tanker in service why adopt a second of roughly the same size? A smaller might make more sense for day to day operations.
 

Gloire_bb

Junior Member
Registered Member
I still argue otherwise.
Austere is a major driver for later Soviet support aircraft.
russian tanker fleet primarily works with:
1.long rage aviation.
2.long range aviation.
...
5.everyone else.

Here, let me speculate a bit.
While the star of current fleet(tu-160) is comparatively less troublesome(swing wing to the rescue; but it still needs massive refuelling anyways!), making tu-95 fly from non-ideal conditions with any load requires a very low fuel fraction, with refuelling needed asap. In both cases, tanker aircraft has to be able to take off from some god-forgotten place, in part because main location may already be a melted glass.
Even "nicer"(these can be huge and quite solid) makeshift ice airfields are neither as hard nor as flat as international airports, and for sure they lack all the necessary support. I've heard what even the new ps-90 equipped il-76s aren't popular with many of their future crews, because high-bypass ratio engine likes to suck in everything on its way. Imagine now a modern airliner, with even larger and "suckier" engines being mounted so much lower.

For current China, though, it is a very low priority scenario, especially since H-6 fleet is self-fed.
Refuelling consumers are support assets(first) and tactical aircraft. Both need just a proper tanker, flying from huge and very dense network of chinese airports and airbases.
 

Tirdent

Junior Member
Registered Member
After all you are not going to get much more fuel from a tanker based at the same bomber base as the bomber. The tanker is there to augment there capabilities by extending range. If your bombers need top off the tanker needs to have enough fuel to share. That means beingncloser to its base.
Except precisely that was what Soviet doctrine amounted to: in times of crisis both the bombers and tankers would disperse temporarily to arctic staging bases as close to US air space as they could get within USSR territory (they clustered around Tiksi in the extreme north-east of the country). If the big fight kicked off, the tankers would accompany the bombers out for a couple thousand km, top them up and turn around, hopefully to an intact base to refuel and head back out to meet the surviving bombers again on the return leg.

That gives even better reach than having the bombers traverse thousands of kilometers inside Soviet air space first. While these staging bases were pretty "austere" in that they had only rudimentary maintenance and living facilities (they were not intended to sustain long term operations), the one thing they had in spades was concrete surface: the runway was typically a generous 3500m.

Commonality is nice but since the airlines were state owned already and most of there bombers were closely related to there airliners. If the Soviets had chosen to they could have gone the same way.
So what bomber was the Il-86 related to?

Again prioritys had to be considered. The Russian air force at the moment seems more in need of over haul at the smaller transport level.
There IL476 or what ever the current designation seems better suited to their needs.
Considering Y-20 production and service entry is moving faster than the new-build Il-76 (again, upgrades of the existing fleet would be another matter), I have a hard time seeing it that way...

And built in higher numbers with more upgrades and available airframe to base off with more interest.
More interest? The Indian air force rejected it *twice* in favour of the much more expensive (but also far more capable) A330MRTT, even after having been basically nudged by the government to bias the selection toward low price the second time round. While the Il-96 would not have had as big an up front cost advantage over the A330 as the Il-76, it would have beat the Airbus in terms of capability - that could well have tipped the price/performance arithmetic in its favour.

Algeria (another Il-78 operator) has been ogling the A330MRTT as well, so rehashing the Il-76 may well have cost Russia two of their biggest export customers for tanker aircraft.

It's easier to pitch a Lockheed Martin C130J Super Hercules an established long lived military transport rebuild then it is a Lockheed Martin L1946J Super Starliner airliner.
Using Il96M as a tanker demands that that bird have the numbers built otherwise there is no reason.
Bad example actually - the C-130J actually suffers from many of the same problems as the upgraded Il-76, only it (unlike the Il-76) had no real competition to show up its weaknesses until very recently. It now has the market essentially cornered, so there isn't much left for the KC-390 to take, but if EMBRAER had moved 10 years earlier I suspect it would have been a blood bath. Quite apart from the fact that, as mentioned already, it's in fact the Il-96 which is of considerably newer design vintage.

Here's a comparison of their off-load performance:

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>60% higher offload at 17% greater distance, and I remind you once more that these aircraft are powered by essentially the same engine! That's how much more modern and efficient the Il-96 is airframe-wise. Theoretically, that's not even the full potential of the basic airframe, by using the lighter short fuselage of the Il-96-300 you could eke out another couple of tons. Tu-160s in combination with tankers like this is a pretty scary scenario!

Farther more the long lived production of the Il76 makes it more realistic.
Except that very production stalled so badly it had to be moved to Russia at extremely high cost, all the while the Il-96 kept ticking over - at a mere trickle, but it kept going.

Usually due to established lines of commonality reducing parts costs. That's a major driver.
Affects primarily the engines though - and in this case both contenders are powered by the orphan PS-90A with no commercial base to speak of. Ordinarily you'd have a point, but in this case it's moot.

Once the IL96 might have proved a good bird for the job in an alternative 1990 had it more interest and investment but with maybe 30 built it didn't make economic sense as already it was on life support with most of the orders being Russian government already.
Yup, that's the sad part - they kept throwing money at it to keep it alive, yet refused to do so in a way that would maximize their the return on their investment (or minimize the loss, if you will). All these years they've been ordering more passenger variants than they themselves know what to do with instead of a world-class tanker than might even win a few export orders here and there. It's tragic, really.

Had you said TU204 it might make some more sense as well so many are in storage. They built 85 or so and most of the buyers went belly up. Could get a fleet pretty cheap these days and do what you want to them.
Too small - it just doesn't have the MTOW-OEW margin to realistically support strategic bombers (you'd probably need three of them to top up a single Tu-160, LOL).

Over all twin engines are more efficient for tankers and being honest if they were still intent on keeping Il78 around than what would be the mission? If you have that big tanker in service why adopt a second of roughly the same size? A smaller might make more sense for day to day operations.
Simple: get rid of the Il-78. It is if anything more expensive to operate (same number of a closely related engine design, considerably more complex airframe mechanically due to 'off-road' landing gear and STOL flap system), performs significantly worse and, until an ungodly amount of money was spent on establishing one, did not have a domestic production line. An expensive lemon.
 
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