The Y-20 has been years in the making and is apparently similar in size to the Soviet designed Ilyushin Il-76 airlifters that have been a mainstay cargo hauler of Russian client states for decades. The jet is reportedly able to fly 2,400 nautical miles and carry up to 66 tons of cargo, meaning that it can haul China's heaviest armored vehicles. It may also be able to land on dirt airstrips as the C-17 can -- a feature that's proven very useful in Afghanistan.
As some have noted in the days since the jet took its first flight, it's somewhat of a Frankenplane: the tail of an Airbus A400M turboprop, a C-17 or Il-76 fuselage and maybe an Antonov AN-70 nose. (we think it looks a lot like a four-engined version of Brazil's Embraer KC-390.) Still, the Y-20 makes China the third (or fourth, if you count Ukraine) country to develop and fly a large, strategic, jet-powered airlifter.
While there's not much info available about how many Y-20s the Chinese air force will buy, the service currently flies 20 Il-76s.
The airframe was designed by Chinese engineers at the X'ian Aircraft Industrial Corporation, but it relies on Russian-made D-30 turbofan engines. China has yet to master the very difficult art of building high-performance jet engines.
As China specialist at the U.S. Naval War College, and friend of Killer Apps, Andrew Erickson points out here, the arrival of the Y-20 is a point of pride for a Chinese military that's clearly aiming to project power at least throughout the Pacific. Still, Erickson notes, it takes more than just airframes and ships to be able to pull off complex operations around. Currently, only a handful of nations have the advanced avionics, communications gear, engines, and -- most importantly -- well-trained troops capable of using all this equipment effectively.
While China may be trying to close the equipment military gap between it and the West, it remains to be seen how fast Beijing's troops will become fully proficient in using the modern arsenal it is trying to build.
Chinese Internet, China Defense Blog