Beyond KC-46: Air Force Exploring ‘Advanced’ Tech On Next Tanker

A KC-46 refuels an F-35 (USF)

WASHINGTON: While the Air Force is still working through long-standing technical issues and delays with the KC-46A Pegasus tanker, the service is turning its gaze to the future, with both a commercially-based “bridge tanker” and a next-generation capability based on “advanced technologies” on the agenda.

That’s according to Lt. Gen. David Nahom, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, who told Senate appropriators today that “We’re keeping our eyes open to advanced technology — there may be something else beyond the KC-46, beyond a 767-based platform to take us into the future,” he said.

“If your eyes on China, like we all are right here, and you look at the distances in the South China Sea, you have to have gas. Now, there’s some technologies we can talk about that maybe use less gas in fighters engines, technology things like that, but overall, we’re going to need the gas in the air,” Nahom stated.

The Air Force for years since has been dithering about tanker recapitalization, but recently seems to be reverting to a three-staged plan, laid out in the early part of the 2010s. That plan involved a first buy of 179 KC-46 Pegasus aircraft, followed by a competition for another 179 so-called KC-Y aircraft based on available technology, and, finally, the development of a new, larger tanker to replace the KC-10.

Following the 2011 decision to buy the KC-46, the Air Force instead said it would simply buy three tranches of the Boeing plane, but now the service seems to have reversed course again in the wake of KC-46 production delays, explains a June 24 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). In addition, CRS noted, the service might also look at simply hiring commercial operators to provide refueling as a service.

“Overall, these changes to the Air Force’s tanker roadmap mean that the previous two-tanker fleet, which
was expected to evolve for a time to a single model, could eventually become a three-tanker fleet (KC-46,
Bridge Tanker, and Advanced Air Refueling Tanker) plus whatever types contractors operate,” CRS said.

There are concrete signs of that happening. On June 14, the service issued a “sources sought” notification for the KC-Y Bridge Tanker; and on Monday it issued a formal “Request for Information” focused on a “Commercial Derivative Aircraft” that must be operable by 2030. The RFI states that the service “is seeking information from interested companies with the capability to deliver approximately 140-160 Commercial Derivative Tanker Aircraft to supplement the Air Force Tanker Aircraft fleet at the end of KC-46 production to bridge the gap to the next Tanker recapitalization phase.”

The RFI further states that while the service “is still finalizing the requirements” for the buy, “the baseline for aircraft capability will be based on the KC-X (awarded as KC-46A) requirements from phase one of tanker recapitalization, with subsequent and emerging requirements defined by the Air Force.”

That competition may end up being a rehash of the infamous “tanker wars” of the late 2000s, pitting Boeing against Airbus and its A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport. Airbus, now teamed with Lockheed Martin, has already said it intends to make a pitch; as does Boeing despite its $5 billion in losses (and counting) on a host of problems with the KC-46.

“We worked out this roadmap with TRANSCOM and the other Combat Commanders to make sure we give them enough capacity to mitigate risk, while we get to the modern fleet which will be 300 KC-135 modernized, and 179 KC-46s,” Nahom told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “And then at that point, once we get to that 179, you’ll see us start talking about a bridge contract, because, eventually, even those 300 KC-135 will be replaced. We just don’t know what that is right now; we know right now the first 179 will be the KC-46.”

Last September, then-Air Force acquisition head Will Roper said that for the future, he was discussing the possibility of a fully autonomous tanker to follow-on the bridge tanker with Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, head of Air Force Mobility Command, as well as a panoply of other options to improve re-fueling capabilities —  including a bigger fighter jet, something Nahom indicated is under consideration.

The short range of the F-35 has been identified by analysts as a potential issue when operating in the Pacific. Further, under the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program to develop a family of aircraft for the future, the service is reportedly considering both a long-range and a short-range sixth generation fighter for operations in the Pacific and Europe respectively.

“We still have several more years of procurement of the KC-46,” Nahom said. “So, the good thing is we have time to have these conversations, and look at the technologies out there.”

Bed Down

Nahom added that “in the coming year” the Air Force will decide on two more Air National Guard locations to “bed down” the KC-46 and phase out the existing KC-135s.

“We’ve been very successful over the last year working very closely with TRANSCOM in balancing that tanker risk to find out exactly what we need day-to-day for our refuelers, but allowing us the resources so we can modernize into the KC-46, and the modifications we need to make to the KC-135,” he said. “That balance is very important as we as we look to the future.”

Nahom demurred answering Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, about when KC-46s might be based in Alaska to replace the aging KC-35s stationed there, but noted that the service is “very focused on Alaska” and the plan to put four extra KC-135s at Eielson AFB near Fairbanks.

“This is a really good news story for the Air Force. We need additional refueling capacity, because … it is the center of fifth generation warfare in our Air Force with with what’s going on up at Eielson with the F-35s, and certainly with the plus-up of F-22 down in Anchorage,” he said. “Getting more refueling capacity has been our most immediate need, and that’s why those additional four and we’re committed to getting those four tankers there as quickly as possible.”

He explained that currently, the service needs to build out the infrastructure to house the new tankers and the personnel required to operate and maintain them, but stressed that “having that refueling capacity is game-changing” for the service’s ability to rapidly project airpower anywhere in the world.

“The additional four tankers and increasing air refueling capacity in Alaska is one of one of the better moves we made last year,” he added.

Meanwhile, the service announced on July 12 that Van Ovost had approved the KC-46A to use its centerline drogue system to begin re-fueling operations for some limited mission sets. “This decision provides more daily ‘taskable’ operational capabilities to the joint team and increases capacity for tanker fleet requirements,” a news release said at the time.

Van Ovost has instituted a plan to bring KC-46 operations online over time as its capabilities are improved, but the Air Force has said it will not certify full operational capability (FOC) is still “years away.”

“While AMC seeks to provide increased operational capability to a stressed tanker fleet, Category-I deficiencies still need to be resolved, including the upgraded Remote Vision System 2.0 and a redesign of the Boom Telescope Actuator. The KC-46A will not achieve FOC until those deficiencies are cleared,” the press release explained.

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