Sunday 22 August 2021

Tried and Trusted: Kazakhstan Acquires The Y-8

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Chinese Y-8 transport aircraft is unlikely to receive an award for the originality of its design – it being a 1970s reverse engineered variant of the Soviet An-12 with marginal changes to suit Chinese requirements. From the 1970s onwards, the Shaanxi Aircraft Factory set out to improve on the proven design, building on experiences gained with the serial production of the Y-8 but also taking advantage of foreign expertise through Lockeed Martin as well as Antonov, the original designer of the An-12. The resulting aircraft, the Y-8F-600 and Y-9, still have a clear outward resemblance to the earlier Y-8 variants but feature a stretched and redesigned fuselage, a glass cockpit and the ability to use Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines.
First introduced in 2006, the Y-8F-600 and Y-9 have since then formed the basis of several specialised variants that are currently in service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force and Navy Air Force, and an AWACS version (the ZDK-03) has also been exported to Pakistan. For these reasons, it is perhaps all the more surprising that other countries instead of acquiring these aircraft have continued to purchase newly-built older variants of the Y-8 for their air arms. Offering a look that is distinctively reminiscent of the early Cold War period, these older generation aircraft are nonetheless well appreciated for their ruggedness, ability to operate from unpaved airstrips and ease of maintenance. 

The Y-8 also comes at a much reduced pricetag compared to similar aircraft like the C-130 or Il-76, owing both to its relative simplicity and the flexibility and loans of Chinese funding. This was likely an convincing factor for the Venezuelan Air Force to purchase eight Y-8s in 2012 after years of eying the acquisition of Il-76s and Il-78s from Russia. Several years later, Kazakhstan would follow in Venezuela's footsteps with an order for at least one Y-8F-200W. This time the order would not be for its air force, but for the National Guard. The arrival of the Y-8 in September 2018 marked the inauguration of the first aviation assets of the National Guard.
The National Guard (and its predecessor, the Internal Troops) was previously wholly reliant on the transport capabilities of the Kazakhstan Air Force since its founding in 2014. As the 9th largest country in the world, a long operational range and the ability to carry a lot of troops are surely appreciated; the Kazakhstan Border Guard operates a fleet of An-74s and newly-acquired CASA C295Ws for similar reasons. The National Guard's choice for a Chinese aircraft could in turn well be related to the speed with which the Y-8s were able to be delivered. After signing the contract on the 21st of April 2018, the first aircraft already arrived to the country in September the same year. [1]

Kazakhstan is certainly no stranger to the design and layout of the Y-8, having previously operated a number of An-12s until the last example was retired at the end of the previous decade. These rugged transport aircraft were well suited to the country's needs due to their payload capacity and endurance, and it is likely that it were precisely these feats aside from the benefits of familiarity that attracted Kazakhstan to acquire the highly similar Y-8. During their operational career in Kazakh service, the An-12s were based out of Almaty international airport (IAP), Astana IAP and Zhetigen airbase, with frequent deployments to other airbases located throughout the country. These are also likely to be the airbases for the Y-8.

A Kazakh An-12 on its take-off run.

A Kazakh Y-8. Note the National Guard roundel on the tail.

Khazakhstan's Y-8 represent a significant boost to the transport capabilities of the National Guard around the country. Despite this, they are one of only a handful of Chinese military products to have found solid ground in the country, with the Wing Loong I UCAVs believed to have been less successful in Kazakh service. Whether the Y-8 is a harbinger of more Chinese involvement thus remains to be seen, with other parties such as Turkey, South Africa and Israel also becoming potentially interesting suppliers as Khazakhstan continues its trend towards industrial participation and a corresponding modernisation of its armed forces. In the meantime, the trusty Y-8 is likely to serve its operators well, providing Khazakhstan with a robust aircraft with a good track record of safety.

[1] Kazakhstan’s first Y-8 transport aircraft makes maiden flight in China
Header image by Maxim Morozov.
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