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Chinese Air Force YU-20 tanker and Chinese Navy J-15 carrier-based fighter achieve first air refueling.

| 2023

In a significant milestone, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force and the PLA Navy recently conducted their inaugural in-flight refueling exercise. According to a report by Liu Xuanzun in Global Times, the exercise featured a YU-20 tanker aircraft from the PLA Air Force and a J-15 carrier-based fighter jet from the PLA Navy. This event, which was showcased in a documentary program produced jointly by the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission, China Media Group, and the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, was revealed to the public for the first time. The program was aired on August 2, coinciding with China's Army Day celebrations.

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Chinese Air Force YU 20 tanker and Chinese Navy J 15 carrier based fighter achieve first in flight refueling A picture showing the refueling of a J-15 by a YU-20 being unavailable, here is an artist's view of the air refueling of a J-20 fighter by a Y-20 (Picture source: Chinese media)

During the exercise, a J-15 fighter jet successfully connected its refueling probe to the YU-20 aerial tanker's drogue while flying over the sea. This operation showcased the successful coordination and cooperation between different combat platforms and theoretical systems.

Previously, the YU-20 aerial tanker was known for providing aerial refueling support exclusively to other air force aircraft, including J-10C, J-16, and J-20 fighter jets. On the other hand, the J-15 carrier-based fighter jet had been revealed to have conducted buddy refueling, a method in which a fighter jet is equipped with an aerial refueling pod to serve as a makeshift tanker.

The recent exercise demonstrated the PLA's systematic integration capabilities, as it showcased how different military services can work together and share resources to enhance their combat capabilities. Wang Ya'nan, the chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine based in Beijing, emphasized the advantages of using dedicated land-based large tanker aircraft over buddy refueling. Large tanker aircraft like the YU-20 can carry much more fuel and do not consume the precious resources of carrier-based fighter jets on aircraft carriers. Additionally, the YU-20's long range makes it ideal for providing refueling services to carrier-based aircraft during complex long-range and long-endurance missions, thereby maximizing the potential of aircraft carrier groups.

The PLA Navy's aircraft carriers, including the Liaoning and the Shandong, frequently conduct exercises beyond the first island chain in the West Pacific, and at times, in waters east of Taiwan. These maneuvers allow them to surround "Taiwan independence" secessionist forces and counter external interference, as reported by media outlets.

Moreover, the defense authority on the island of Taiwan has reported several instances of YU-20 tanker aircraft being spotted flying to the east side of the island during routine PLA exercises and patrols in the region. This showcases the PLA's capability to deploy aerial refueling support to extend the operational range and endurance of their aircraft in critical areas.

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