Air Transportation: China Has It Both Ways


July 4, 2013: China has begun receiving new Il-76 transports from Russia. Last year China revived, in part, a 2005 deal to buy Il-76s. The new arrangement only involved China buying ten refurbished Il-76s. Back in 2005, China placed a $1.5 billion order for 38 Il-76 transport planes and Il-78s (tanker versions of the Il-76). A year later China cancelled the deal when Russia tried to up the price 27 percent. China went looking elsewhere, including urging its domestic aircraft manufacturers to come up with something. That process eventually led to the new Y-20, but in the meantime China needs some more jet powered military transports right now. Similar to the older American C-141, over 900 Il-76s were manufactured over the last thirty years. Nearly a hundred Il-76s were exported so far, mainly to Cuba, Iraq, China, India, Libya, and Syria.

Meanwhile, China has been developing an air transport similar to the American C-17. The new Y-20 and appears to have a max weight of 220 tons and a max payload of 80 tons. In most other respects it appears very similar to the C-17. The Y-20 will likely include many characteristics of the 195 ton Il-76, a Russian heavy transport that can carry up to 50 tons and that the Chinese have been using for decades. The Y-20 recently made its first flight and the two prototypes are being used heavily to work out any problems with the aircraft design. The aircraft is still a year or more from production.

The C-17 entered service 17 years ago and each one has a useful life of 30,000 flight hours. The 290 ton C-17 can carry up to 100 tons (including one M-1 tank) anywhere in the world because of in-air refueling. The C-17 costs about $250 million each. About fifty have been sold to foreign users, including Britain, Canada, Australia, and India. Qatar and the UAE each have six, while Canada and Qatar each have four. India has ordered ten. The U.S. Air Force operates over 200. China does not need that many Y-20s but it does want to get away from depending on Russia for heavy transports. Dealing with Russia can be difficult.

China is no longer interested in buying 38 Il-76/78s but is willing to work with Russia in developing a Chinese replacement for the Il-76. That’s the Y-20, which is using Russian engines and much more Russian aviation technology as well. Russia is still pushing the Il-76 as an inexpensive way to obtain a modern jet transport.


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