The photos appeared on Chinese social media site Weibo and was first reported by the Chinese publication Weapon, printed by weapons maker China North Industries Group Corporation. The Global Times republished the photos on its Twitter account earlier this week.
They show a version of the Harbin Z-20, the PLA’s newest all-purpose helicopter, that appears to have been modified for naval duties.
The heli’s folding rotor blades and tail help it to fit into the ship’s small hangar, and the way it sits on the ship’s landing pad suggests its wheels have been enhanced for landing on a naval vessel as well, the South China Morning Post noted.
#ChinaDefense A navy variant of the Z-20 utility helicopter made its first appearance, as a full-sized model was spotted testing on the flight deck of a Chinese destroyer. https://t.co/Fe8cIFHt3w pic.twitter.com/Operq5Lb6P— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) July 2, 2019
The ship is believed to be the Type 055 guided missile destroyer Nanchang, SCMP noted, the largest such vessel in East Asia - so big, the US Navy defines the 13,000-ton warship as a cruiser.
Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Global Times the PLAN was likely testing the “practical adaptability” of the Z-20 on ships, including how it would actually fit onto them.
"The PLA Navy has had a shortage of home-grown ship-borne helicopters for a long time," Song Zhongping, a military analyst in Hong Kong, told the South China Morning Post. "When it's ready, the Z-20 could fill a big gap."
Song said the 10-ton Z-20 was the “perfect size” for China’s naval aviation needs, as its other helicopters are either too big to fit on warships or too small to be capable of carrying out any kind of mission effectively. The Z-8 is a 13-ton beast capable of heavy lifting, but much too big for the narrow confines of a destroyer’s aft section, and the 4-ton Z-9 is so small the PLAN can’t use it for much more than radar spotting. SCMP noted Beijing has bought export versions of the Russian KA-28, but they don’t quite cut it, either.
[シコルスキー S-70]— 人民解放軍 画像bot (@PLA_Photo_bot) July 3, 2019
The Z-20 has been slandered in Western press as a “Copyhawk” due to its superficial similarities to the US-made UH-60 Black Hawk, which China also operates but is now retiring in favor of the Z-20, but as Sputnik reported, it’s actually a very different helicopter. For example, the Z-20’s engine is much more powerful, as it’s expected to perform heavy-lifting duties at high altitudes in Tibet. The Z-20 made its first flight in 2013, but only recently entered general service with the PLA.
In February, Sputnik reported that China and Russia were expected to sign what Rostec director Viktor Kladov called "the contract of the century,” an agreement between Rostec and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China to jointly produce a 40-ton heavy-lift helicopter by 2032. The Global Times notes the engine design was expected to be based off Mil’s Mi-26 heavy lifter.