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China's XAC reveals possible new tanker variant

China's Xi'an Aircraft Industrial Corporation (XAC) is progressing rapidly with the development of both the Y-20B heavy transport aircraft fitted with Shenyang WS-20 high-bypass turbofan engines and its KJ-600 carrier-capable airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, satellite imagery captured in late November 2021 shows.

The images – published on 12 January 2022 on several social media platforms – show at least four WS-20-powered Y-20B transport and three green KJ-600 AEW aircraft at the Xi'an-Yanliang airfield, which is home to both a XAC plant and the China Flight Test Establishment. Together with one more already painted KJ-600 prototype, four of these aircraft are confirmed to be in existence.

At least two of the Y-20Bs appear to be fitted with in-flight refuelling pods, suggesting that besides the Y-20U dedicated aerial refuelling aircraft, which is being built in larger numbers for the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), a new tanker variant based on the improved Y-20B is under development, possibly for the PLAAF or the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force.

The Y-20B had its maiden flight in November 2020 and in October 2021, a second aircraft was confirmed.

The fact that two more prototypes of the improved variant are being tested and that, in parallel to serial production of the interim Y-20U tanker, a more capable tanker variant is in development reflects the importance of this programme to the PLAAF.

The Y-20U was confirmed to have entered PLAAF service in November 2021 within the 13th Transport Division, 37th Air Regiment based at Kaifeng, with at least three aircraft in service.

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