Currently the PLA operates two dedicated aerial refuelling tanker aircraft: the Xian H-6U and the Ukrainian Il-78. The H-6U 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 former-Ukrainian Il-78 tanker aircraft in 2015 represents another significant boost in the PLAAF’s ability to extend its operations in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Background

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 jointly proposed to develop 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. 30 Mk32 refuelling pods 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 Development 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.

H-6 refuelling training

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Xi’an H-6U/DU ‘Badger’

Both the PLAAF and the PLANAF operate the H-6 tanker aircraft. The air force version H-6U were newly-built airframes with a solid nose, while the navy version H-6DU 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 are currently in operational service.

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..

Each H-6U 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 H-6U is also capable of refuelling the J-10 fighter, but its refuelling system is not compatible with the refuelling probe of the PLA’s Su-30MKK fighter.

The H-6U has a similar avionic configuration as the H-6A 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.

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PLAAF H-6U
PLA Navy H-6DU
RDC-1 refuelling pod
H-6U Specifications
  • 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

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Il-78 ‘Midas’

As the indigenous H-6U 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 dealworth 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.

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 t. 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 t. 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.

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