Earlier this month, Zhu Qian, head of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) indicated that Beijing intends to purchase a vast fleet of heavy transport aircraft, in addition to new stealth fighters.
"More than 1,000 Y-20s will be needed," he told reporters.
Last week, the first two were delivered to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Codenamed "Kunpeng" after the giant bird of Chinese mythology, the aircraft also has the nickname "Chubby Girl."
The Y-20 relies on four Russian-made Soloviev D-30 turbofan engines. With a payload of 73 short tons, the aircraft can carry heavy military hardware, including the ZTZ99, China’s largest tank.
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When its cargo hold is at maximum capacity, the plane has a range of 2,800 miles. With 40 tons of cargo, that number increases dramatically, with a range of 4,850 miles.
While its primary function is transport, the Y-20 can also serve as a strategic command center capable of coordinating other aircraft in combat, and can even function as refueling tanker.
The planes were delivered to the 12th Regiment of the 4th Transport Division. Additional Y-20s will be delivered in subsequent months, and could ultimately be used in the South China Sea.
In a move that has irked the United States and its Pacific allies, China has constructed a series of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago. Washington has accused Beijing of using the installations to establish an air defense zone, while Beijing maintains that it has every right to build within its own territory and that the islands will be used primarily for humanitarian purposes.
While China lays claim to most of the South China Sea, there are overlapping claims by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The United States has no claims to the region.