HY-6 (Hongzhaji You-6) Aerial Refueling Tanker
Historically, China has not had a requirement for aerial refueling. The scenarios that confronted the PLAAF - Korea and Taiwan - did not pose such a requirement, and PLANAF green water coastal defense scenarios also did not envision aerial refueling. However, as the South China Sea loomed larger in Chinese thinking acquiring at least a modest aerial refueling capability became an imperative. Work on a tanker version of the Y-8 turboprop transport was initiated in the 1980s, and in 1986 a model of a tanker-configured Y8 was displayed at an aviation trade fair in Beijing. The British company Flight Refuelling Ltd. [FRL] may have been under constract in the 1980s to engineer the conversion, since the aircraft featured refuelling pods similar to the FRL Mk 32 hose drum units (HDUs) fitted to the Vickers VC 10 C.1 K tanker/transport.
The first-generation tanker operated by the PLAAF, the HY-6 was developed by Xian Aircraft Corp in the early 1990s based on the H-6/Tu-16 bomber. Indigenously built Badgers, many retaining the ability to carry missiles, are the sole operational tanker type in PLA service, though imported Il-78 Midas may be introduced. The aircraft, also reported to be designated H-6U, HL-6, HU-6 or HU-6I, carries two wing mounted hose/drogue (funnel-shaped receptacle) pods that resemble the British FRL Mk.32 pod. China reportedly obtained some 1960-70s-era western-made IFR equipment via Israel or Iran.
Badgers are large enough to carry a useful fuel supply, and available cheaply. With nearly 170,000 lb (75,000 kg) MTOW and an internal fuel payload of about 80,000 lb (37,000 kg) with a bomb bay tank [half of which is available for refueling operations], the Badger is a reasonable tanker in the size class of the British Victor K.2. It can refuel two J-8Ds simultaneously and up to six fighters in one sortie, giving them a combat radius of around 1,000km. However, with a total fuel uplift about half that of a KC-135E/R, each Badger can adequately support only two fighters. Only some upgraded version of other fighter airplanes have refueling capabilities. On the J-8D the refueling probe working with Xian HY-6 tankers, extended the combat radius from SOO km (496 miles) to 1,200 km (745 miles) during overwater operations.
Details on the number of H-6 Badgers converted to tankers and technical details on the configurations remain a bit scarce. At least two and as many as three variants have been reported, though details and nomenclature are seriously confused:
- HY-6U or H-6U - HY-6 dedicated PLAAF tanker production airframes with a solid nose, without the fire control system and radar, and the usual chin radome is deleted. [other sources report; fitted with PV-23 fire control system].
- HY-6DU or H-6DU - converted H-6 airframes fielded in the mid-1990s with the PLANAF's 9th Division at Lingshui, Hainan Province, used as dedicated refueling tankers by the Chinese Navy. The navigator's station has a greatly reduced glazing area and deep chin radome, and modified to remove the standard fire control system [some sources report PV-23 fire control system].
- HY-6D - H-6D airframes converted into aerial refueling tankers for use by the Chinese Navy, retaining a glass nose and fire control system allowing anti-ship missiles to be carried. Other sources report solid metal nose assembly; PV-23 fire control system. This "variant" may be an entirely spurious nomenclature jumble, as it is not attested by the authoritative Chinese Aircraft of Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Komissarov]
The HY-6DU and "HY-6D" appear to be conversions, while the HY-6U are purpose-built production aircraft. The remote control gun barbettes and tail turret are deleted to save weight. The refuelling systems operator's station is in the former tail gunner's station. The aircraft are claimed to have dual INS and dual TACAN beacons.
The first flight took place in 1990, with the first successful aerial refuelling operation coming in 1993. During the National Day military parade held in Beijing on 1st October 1999, a pair of HY-6 tankers escorted by four J-8Ds flew over Tiananmen Square, suggesting that the aircraft was in operational service. The IISS Military Balance 2006 reported ten HY-6 refueling planes in service with the PLAAF. As of 2010 the PLAAF had a regiment of about 10 new-build HY-6 tankers based at Leiyang in the Guangzhou MR, supporting J-8D and J-10 fighters.
As aerial tanker HY-6 is technically outdated and just a intermediate solution. The air-refuellable Su-30MKK could empty an HY-6 tanker dry in one go, except that the HY-6 is not compatible with the IFR probe of the Su-30MKK fighter. This China in 2005 reportedly ordered either 8 or 28 IL-78 air refueling tankers from Russia. Expansion of the tanker force and delivery of Il-78 tankers from Russia would extend the range of the PLAAF's refuelable combat aircraft. However the mix of different tankers and limitations on which aircraft each tanker can support will impose limits on operational flexibility.
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