China is testing homemade engines that would allow its transport planes to carry tanks to the front line

  • Many Chinese warplanes rely on Russian engines, but a homemade engine could increase their range and capacity.
  • That would allow China’s transport aircraft to carry the country’s main battle tank, the 99A, around the world.
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China is testing a domestically designed engine for its military transport planes that could replace the Russian engines the fleet currently relies upon and increase the loads it can carry by around 20%, according to a military source.

The increased capacity means it will now be able to transport China’s most advanced tank, the 58-tonne 99A, which is too heavy for the current engines to carry.

China has long struggled to produce high-quality engines for its warplanes, leaving the military reliant on Russian engines to power some of its jets

The source said the WS-20 engine is designed to give the planes a bigger lift and longer range and has been installed on one Y-20 for testing.

“It will probably take three or more years to install such engines to other transport aircraft,” the source continued.

The Y-20, built by the Xian Aircraft Industry Corporation, is the biggest warplane in the air force’s fleet. It is currently powered by Soloviev D-30 engines that give it a range of 7,500km (4,660 miles) and a cargo capacity of 55 tonnes.

China 99A tank

Type 99A battle tanks in a military parade through Tiananmen Square in Beijing on September 3, 2015.
GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

The aircraft manufacturer said the new WS-20 engine, designed by the Shenyang Aeroengine Research Institute, would increase its capacity from 55 tonnes to 66 tonnes.

The new engines are also expected to increase the plane’s range by an unspecified distance and will allow it to carry out long-range missions while carrying heavy equipment such as tanks without needing to refuel.

Michael Raska, an assistant professor with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said: “The new WS-20 engines on the Y-20 variants are designed to increase the operational reach and cargo capacity, essentially enabling strategic airlift for the People’s Liberation Army.”

“Flying longer, faster, and heavier would, of course, provide more options for the PLA to reach its operational objectives,” said Raska.

However, beyond the operational implications, there are questions about whether the Chinese defence industry will be able to ensure the quality and reliability of these engines, said Raska.

“[Engine quality is] a long-standing weakness of all Chinese turbofan engines. If they could do so, China would become less dependent on the Russian suppliers of these types of engines,” Raska added.

The Shenyang WS-20 engine is an adaptation of the WS-10A turbofan that powers some of the PLA’s Chinese-made fighter jets, including the J-10 and J-16.

Military analyst Song Xinzhi recently told state broadcaster China Central Television that the new engine would use less fuel compared with the Russian one and produce a more powerful thrust that would allow the Y-20 to take off and land at airfields with smaller runways.

Military analyst Song Zhongping said the greater capacity would allow the PLA to overcome a logisitical problem when transporting heavy equipment such as tanks by air. Previously this could only be done my dismantling the tanks for transport and reassembling them on arrival.

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