Currently the PLA operates two dedicated aerial refuelling tanker aircraft: the Xian HY-6 and the Ukrainian IL-78. The HY-6 represents the very first steps taken by China in developing the aerial refuelling capability for long-range power projection beyond its own territories. The acquisition of three ex-Ukrainian Air Force IL-78 tanker aircraft in 2014 represents another significant boost in the PLA’s ability to extend its operations in the East China Sea and South China Sea regions.
The PLA first sought to acquire the aerial refuelling capability in the early 1980s, with both foreign purchase and indigenous development being considered. In 1983, the Chinese Ministry of Aeronautics and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) jointly proposed the development of the Y-10 (Chinese reverse-engineered copy of the Boeing 707) passenger jet into an aerial refuelling tanker fitted with two British Mk32 refuelling pods. Following the cancellation of the Y-10 programme in 1985, the Ministry of Aeronautics sought to purchase the Boeing 707 aircraft directly from the United States as the platform for its tanker aircraft. Thirty units of the Mk32 refuelling pod were ordered from Britain. However, all talks stopped after 1989 as a result of the arms embargo imposed by the United States and European Union.
The indigenous development of the aerial refuelling tanker aircraft was included in China’s 7th Five-Year Plan in 1981. Pre-research of relevant technologies including the refuelling pod, TACAN aircraft navigation system, inertial navigation system (INS), and weather radar was initiated in 1982. In 1988, the PLA approved the plan to develop the Xi’an H-6 (Chinese copy of the Tu-16 ‘Badger’) medium-range bomber into an aerial refuelling tanker, with the Shenyang J-8II ‘Finback’ fighter to be added with the capability to receive in-flight refuelling.
Between November 1988 and June 1989, the PLAAF flew the H-6 bomber and J-8II fighter in refuelling formations. Conversion of an existing H-6 bomber into aerial refuelling tanker began in March 1990 and the H-6 and J-8II aircraft completed relevant modifications in February 1991. The modified H-6 tanker first flew in June 1991. The first successful in-flight refuelling operation between an H-6 tanker and a J-8II fighter was carried out on 20 October 1991.
Xi’an HY-6 ‘Badger’
Both the PLAAF and the PLANAF operate the H-6 tanker aircraft. The air force version HY-6 (Hong You-6) were newly-built airframes with a solid nose, while the navy version HY-6D were converted from existing H-6D bomber airframes, which retained the glass-in nose and the large under-chin radome for fire-control radar. About 20 examples in total are currently in operational service.
PLA Naval Air Force HY-6D
The tanker aircraft carries 37 tonnes of aviation fuel inside its tanks and can transfer 18.5 tonnes of fuel to the fighter aircraft. The refuelling system consists if two RDC-1 refuelling pods developed by China Institute of Aero Accessories. The two pods are mounted on pylons under each wing and a control panel in the operator’s station. Two fighter aircraft can be refuelled at the same time. The operator station is located inside the original tail gun turret on the H-6 bomber.
RDC-1 Refuelling Pod
Each HY-6 is capable of refuelling two J-8D fighters simultaneously, and up to six fighters in one round. Each refuel can extend the aircraft’s combat radius from 800 km to 1,200 km. The HY-6 is also capable of refuelling the Shenyang J-8 and Chengdu J-10 fighters, but its refuelling system is not compatible with the refuelling probe of the Russian-made Su-30MKK.
The HY-6 has a similar avionic configuration as the H-6E/F bomber. For refuelling operations, the tanker has two inertial navigation systems (INS) (one for backup) for navigation, two TACAN systems for all-weather day/night mutual detection and approach from distances up to 200 km, and a weather radar replacing the original bombing radar in the nose. The aircraft also has radio/light signal system for night refuelling operations. The aircraft’s electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite includes a radar warning receiver (RWR) and chaff/flare dispensers.
Flight crew:..................3 Empty weight:.................37,700 kg Normal take-off weight........72,000 kg Max take-off weight...........75,800 kg Max internal fuel capacity:...37,000 kg Refuelling capacity:..........18,500 kg Max speed:....................1,014 km/h Cruising speed:...............Mach 0.75 (786 km/h) Max range:....................4,500 km Service ceiling:..............12,200 m
As the indigenous HY-6 tanker only has limited capability and performance, the PLAAF has been seeking a more capable design such as the IL-78 ‘Midas’ since the early 2000s. In 2005, China signed a deal worth US$1.045 billion with Russia to purchase 30 examples of the IL-76 transport aircraft and 8 examples of the IL-78 tanker aircraft. However, none of the aircraft was delivered as a result of increased production costs and dispute between the aircraft manufacturer in Uzbekistan and the Russian arms trading company.
After the purchase deal with Russia finally collapsed in 2008, China turned to Ukraine to purchase refurbished second-hand aircraft in order to meet its immediate requirements for long-range airlift and aerial refuelling capabilities. Between 2011 and 2012, China signed two contracts with Ukrainian state-owned defence export firm Ukrspetsexport to purchase three IL-78 ‘Midas’ tankers and five IL-76MD/MT ‘Candid’ transport aircraft from the Ukrainian MoD surplus, with a total price tag of US$95.5 million. The contract for the three refurbished IL-78 tankers worth US$44.7 million was finalised in December 2012, with the Nikolaev Aircraft Repair Plant (NARP) responsible for the repairs and refurbishment of these aircraft.
First introduced by the Soviet Air Force in the early 1980s, the IL-78 was derived from the IL-76 ‘Candid’ jet airlifter. The aircraft was developed as a three-point air-to-air probe and drogue tanker aircraft, with fuel tanks installed inside its fuselage and three hose and drogue refuelling pods carried under the wings and rear fuselage (port side). The refuelling pods are controlled by an operator located at the flight engineer’s station in the cockpit. The aircraft has a crew of six, including two pilots, a communications operator, a navigator, a flight engineer, and a refuelling operator.
Powered by four Aviadvigatel D-30 KP turbofan engines, the IL-78 can fly at a maximum speed of 850 km/h, with a maximum range of 7,300 km and a service ceiling of 12,000 m. The aircraft has an empty weight of around 72,000 kg and the maximum take-off weight is 210,000 kg.
The aircraft’s avionics include an integrated flight control and navigation system with radio compass, ground surveillance radar, a central computer, an automatic monitoring (AMS) and automatic flight control system (AFCS), a short-haul radio navigation and landing system, identification friend or foe (IFF) transponder, optical/IR aiming sight and a ground collision warning system (GCWS). Other avionics installed in the aircraft include distance measuring equipment (DME), dual very-high-frequency (VHF) navigation / communication and X-band colour weather radar in the nose, cockpit voice recorder / flight data recorder (CVR/FDR), instrument landing system (ILS) and a tactical aid for navigation (TACAN) system. More modern variants of the aircraft are also fitted with traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) and global positioning system (GPS).
IL-78 in PLAAF color scheme spotted in Ukraine
It is not known exactly which model of the IL-78 was delivered to the PLAAF. One possibility is that these are the IL-78MP variant converted from surplus Ukrainian IL-76 stocks. The IL-78MP is a dual-use multirole transport/tanker with removable tanks carried in the aircraft’s cargo bay, with a fuel payload capacity of 85 tonnes. Four examples of the same variant are in service with the Pakistani Air Force (PAF). However, it is also possible that these are the ex-Ukrainian Air Force IL-78Ms, which is a dedicated tanker with a fuel payload capacity of 138 tonnes. Both variants are fitted with three UPAZ-1M ‘Sakhalin’ refuelling pods, with two carried under the wings and one fitted on the port side of the rear fuselage. China has also reportedly obtained some examples of the UPAZ-1M refuelling pods from Ukraine for research and possibly reverse-engineering.
The first IL-78 was identified to have been delivered to the PLAAF 13th Air Division as of October 2014, followed by the second in 2015. In August 2016, a Chinese Ministry of Defence spokesperson confirmed that PLAAF aircraft including Su-30MKK fighters and H-6K bombers had conducted a combat patrol near the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea. Publicity photos have shown PLAAF Su-30MKKs receiving in-flight refuelling from the IL-78 tanker.
Flight crew:..................6 Empty weight:.................72,000 kg Max take-off weight:..........210,000 kg Max internal fuel capacity:...37,000 kg Refuelling capacity:..........138,000 kg Number of refuelling pods:....3 Fuel transfer rate:...........900 to 2,200 litres/min Max speed:....................850 km/h Max range:....................7,300 km Service ceiling:..............12,000 m