U.S. Air Force Wants Stealthy, Laser-Shooting Next-Gen Tanker
The U.S. Air Force, with the KC-46 in production, looks ahead to battlefield-ready follow-ons
Sep 28, 2016
- Stealthy Tankers?
As Russia and China develop sophisticated weapons that can shoot down U.S. aircraft from farther away, Air Force leaders worry that their aerial refueling tankers, the backbone of the joint force, are vulnerable to attack.
Gen. Carlton Everhart II, chief of Air Mobility Command (AMC), thinks about how to solve this problem every day. AMC is embarking on a new look at the art of the possible for the next-generation tanker fleet, often referred to as “KC-Z,” he tells Aviation Week. That future KC-Z may look very different from the large-bodied, commercially derived tankers of today: They could be stealthy, carry missile-shooting lasers, or even fly autonomously.
“What is on the cusp of groundbreaking technologies? That is what we want on that airplane,” Everhart said Sept. 20 at the Air Force Association’s annual air and space conference. “Is it stealthy? I don’t know. Is it large? I don’t know. Is it medium, is it small, what is the combat offload?”
STEALTH, LASERS FOR FUTURE TANKER FORCE?
U.S. Air Force to kick off study on what next-gen tanker should look like
Air Mobility Command is already engaging with industry on stealth, autonomy, armament
Planners may draw on existing blended-wing, hybrid-wing airlift concepts
“KC-Z” would come online in the 2030-40 time frame
The Air Force has spent the last 15 years operating in the permissive skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, with no real need for radar-evading, armed tankers, he says. But adversaries such as Russia and China are developing sophisticated surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft weapons designed to foil U.S. forces’ ability to penetrate, leaving the Pentagon struggling to tackle the new anti-access, area-denied environment.
A stealthy, armed tanker might be part of the solution, Everhart says. The tankers of the 2030s and ’40s will need to be significantly more survivable because they may accompany the next generation of fighters and bombers into this new battlefield. In other words, a nonstealthy tanker could give away the position of the stealthiest fighter jet.
“Now that you are getting near-peer adversaries who have different technologies,” Everhart says, “and they have studied the way we fight, that is starting to change our calculus of how we might execute the next war.”
The Air Force hosted an industry day on the next-generation tanker concept and will continue discussions with industry in order to solicit the best ideas, he says. The KC-Z study is expected to kick off in about six months and to last about a year.
For a next-gen battlefield-survivable tanker, the Air Force may draw on Lockheed Martin’s concept for Speed Agile. Credit: Lockheed Martin
The general hopes to speak with major industry players about applying low-observable coatings, using a blended, hybrid or flying-wing design to reduce the tanker’s radar cross section, or even outfitting the aircraft with lasers to defeat incoming missiles. AMC is open to an autonomous or remotely piloted tanker as well, he says.
For a stealthy next-generation tanker, the Air Force may draw on the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL)Speed Agile concept demonstration, a decade-long collaborative effort by AFRL,
The Air Force may also be looking at Lockheed’s Hybrid Wing Body (HWB) and Boeing’s Blended Wing Body (BWB) concepts for a more fuel-efficient next-generation airlifter. The HWB combines a blended wing and forebody for aerodynamic and structural efficiency with a conventional aft fuselage and tail; BWB is a triangular, tailless design that merges the vehicle’s wing and body. Neither concept is specifically designed for stealth—features such as embedded engines and aligned edges are not apparent—but such an airframe would certainly be stealthier than today’s transport and tanker aircraft and could later be modified to reduce the radar cross section.
The Air Force’s long-stated strategy for replacing its aging KC-10s and KC-135s begins with buying 179
The KC-Z would likely come online in the 2030-40 time frame, he says—after the bow wave of modernization currently facing the Air Force has passed.
“I look at the time lines, I look at the Air Force overall budget, and I ask, ‘Where can I logically not put an undue burden on the
First published on September 23, 2016.
Lockheed Martin and Boeing score contracts for unmanned Navy tanker
- 26 SEPTEMBER, 2016
- BY: LEIGH GIANGRECO
- WASHINGTON DC
A four-way competition to build the US Navy's next carrier-based unmanned air system (UAS) expect to begin revising year-old, preliminary designs that were submitted before the mission changed.
Lockheed Martin and Boeing each received $43 million risk reduction contracts on 23 September from the US Navy. Two more bidders, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, are waiting for their awards.
The new round of contracts pays the contractors to convert their preliminary designs, which were tuned to support the navy's original requirement for a stealthy, carrier-launched surveillance and strike aircraft (UCLASS).
The navy has since converted the MQ-25 programme into the carrier-based airborne refueling system (CBARS). Rather than penetrating into defended airspace to detect and attack targets, the MQ-25s will mostly serve as an escort or "buddy" tanker for manned strike aircraft. The MQ-25 also would be equipped with a 19-23in-diameter forward looking infrared sensor turret for a surveillance mission in permissive airspace.
Industry sources say the navy is expected to release a draft request for proposals in Fiscal 2017, launching the bidding process for the development phase of the programme.