The Ministry of National Defense (MND) publicized another airborne exercise over the South China Sea last week. A photo gallery about it shared few details of the event and revealed Y-9 transports took off from “western China” and flew to “a designated training area at an island.”
The Y-9 manufactured by Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation is best described as a four engine medium transport comparable to the ubiquitous C-130 Hercules and its variants. The Y-9 is a contemporary design that entered service with the PLAAF in 2016 although alternate sources claim this happened in 2012. The flight of at least three Y-9’s over the South China Sea might suggest practice runs for sustaining remote bases in the Spratly and Paracel islands.
But a December 4 news report circulated by state media offered more clues surrounding the training flight. The Y-9’s originated from an airbase in Sichuan province and conducted a practice supply drop at an unnamed remote island before returning home. Based on the photos released by the MND, it was already evening when the Y-9’s completed their mission.
One photo taken from within a Y-9 did show the features of a coral reef stretching below the clouds. While this doesn’t betray its location, it’s worth mentioning there’s only a single airstrip in the Paracels that can support an aircraft as large as a Y-9, which is capable of hauling up to 25 tons of cargo or a hundred passengers.
The Chinese controlled Woody Island was the probable destination of the Y-9’s flown in late November. China’s grip on the Paracels dates back to the Vietnam War, when its troops and warships fought the South Vietnamese over two islets in 1974. Since then the PLA have maintained a garrison on Woody Island, where an airport along with other municipal structures are located. It’s believed Woody Island’s facilities can support at least a squadron of J-10B multirole fighters. Seven additional locations in the Paracels are controlled by China.
There’s no way to confirm whether the same Y-9’s reached the Spratly’s, but these aircraft are capable of traveling at least 4,000 kilometers–the Spratly’s are a thousand kilometers from Hainan’s coast. The Y-9’s reach is disputed by other sources, however, with the Y-9’s maximum range claimed to be either 6,000 or 7,800 km.
There are believed to be at least three airstrips among the “artificial islands” constructed by China over certain features of the Spratly’s. The largest among them is a 3,000 meter runway on Fiery Cross Reef that’s capable of receiving both fighter jets and large transports. The adjacent facilities on the island include possible SAM sites and housing for the base’s staff.
The Y-9 is a variant of the original Y-8 that first rolled out in 1980. The aircraft was a copy of the Soviet AN-12 and enjoyed some export success with China’s Third World clients. During the short-lived dalliance between Beijing and Washington, DC in the mid-1980s US defense contractors were able to work on upgrades of the Y-8. One variant of the Y-9 known as the KJ-200 serves as an early warning and control aircraft. There are no public records that reveal exactly how many Y-9’s are in service today.