USAF Accelerates Plans For Next-Generation Airlifter And Tanker

Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport

Lockheed Martin is prepared to work with Airbus on a modified A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport for the bridge tanker program.

Credit: Lockheed Martin concept

The U.S. Air Force is speeding up plans to look beyond its Boeing C-17 and Lockheed Martin C-5M airlift fleets, announcing that next year it will begin work on new airlift capability, paralleling a similar move for its aerial refueling fleet.

“This coming year, the Department of the Air Force will be working to define the next generation of airlift and tanker capabilities,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said during the Airlift/Tanker Association Annual Convention in Aurora, Colorado, on Oct. 28.

Earlier this year, the service said it wanted to accelerate its future KC-Z tanker by moving up pre-analysis of alternatives research to 2023 from a previous projected timeline of 2030. Kendall says the future airlifter will also need to be moved up as the service studies how it could deliver people and materiel to a war in the Pacific as its bases and logistics hubs come under attack.

  • Work on next-generation U.S. Air Force airlifter to start in 2023
  • The service’s original near-term tanker plan looks less likely
  • Lawmakers, unhappy with the KC-46, weigh forcing a competition

“These operations will be high-risk missions,” Kendall says. “Missions that will require our mobility and tanker communities to be at the heart of the fight.” The service’s headquarters is also starting research on new mobility concepts to determine how the Air Force could airlift into contested airspace under the threat of anti-aircraft systems.

“These future mobility concepts may be very different than our traditional ones,” Kendall says. “We need capabilities that can survive the threat of long-range air-to-air missiles. You must be able to bring mobility assets into a contested environment.”

Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, says the service’s current acquisition path for its next-generation tanker and airlift needs to change.

“Given the instabilities and the long lead times, Air Mobility Command must pursue cheaper, repairable, regenerable and simpler technical solutions,” he says.

Minihan points to parking lots at military bases, which are usually full of different variations of the same full-size pickup truck. Some are basic and cheap, without options, some are mid-range, and others are packed full of features at a higher price point.

“There is an approach that adheres to not creating micro fleets but also creates an environment where not everything has to go to the high-end part of where the threat is,” he says.

Beyond major aircraft acquisitions, Minihan argues that the Air Force also needs other new systems including a capability for drone delivery from the air, sea and even space. Dirigibles, disposable gliders and one-way uncrewed aircraft “should be in our inventory now,” he says. Self-defense systems such as decoys, ground deception cybermisdirection and electronic countermeasures are needed as well, he adds.

“We must imagine and demand a flight line where field and platform are unrecognizable to our grandparents,” Minihan says. “It is not asking too much to pursue nontraditional platforms that can help sustain air mobility and its support mission.”

While the service is moving forward on the new next-generation aircraft plan, some on Capitol Hill have concerns about the aggressive timeline for the KC-Z and may force the Air Force to move ahead with a plan to buy more commercial-derivative refuelers in the near term. That KC-Y “bridge tanker” proposal, which began last summer, now looks less likely as the requirements seem to favor more KC-46s.

Some members of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) this year attempted to put more pressure on the service to move ahead with the KC-Y, but the proposed amendment was defeated in the early morning hours of the marathon June markup. A congressional staffer tells Aviation Week that if Republicans gain control of the House next year and take over the HASC, members are likely to try again to create a requirement for the competition.

“I think what we’re going to have to do is push them,” Rep. Rob Wittman, (R-Va.), ranking member of the HASC’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee, tells Aviation Week. “Obviously, we’re not going to be able to do anything within this year’s [National Defense Authorization Act] as the Senate takes it up. So it’s not going to be anything that we can get accomplished now.

“But I think what we have to do as members—not only seapower and projection forces but also the entire committee—[is] to say: ‘Well, if you’re not going to do [the KC-Y], then what is your vision?’” Wittman adds. “‘What is your vision for making sure you have an aircraft that has the future capabilities in an environment that is going to be even more dynamic than where we are?’ I mean, to me, it is somewhat shortsighted.”

For the KC-Y competition, Boeing is offering its KC-46, and Lockheed Martin is offering the LMXT, a modified Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport.

The service is still working on the requirements ahead of a final request for proposals expected in fiscal 2023, following validation by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, the Air Force says in a statement. The acquisition strategy for tanker recapitalization is still being defined, and if the KC-Y moves ahead, the service says the goal is “uninterrupted recapitalization for the aging tanker fleet after the final KC-46A delivery scheduled for 2029.” In August, Air Force acquisition boss Andrew Hunter said the competition decision would coincide with the next proposed budget release in the spring.

Wittman says he is not pleased with how long it has taken the KC-46 to progress and obtain a new remote-vision system. “So I’m not happy that they have punted on [the KC-Y],” he says.

For some lawmakers, the key will be how the Air Force moves ahead with the future KC-Z. The congressional staff member who spoke to Aviation Week says the Air Force has briefed Capitol Hill that it expects to field the KC-Z in the 2040 timeframe, which would leave about 11 years from the last KC-46 delivery to the first KC-Z. The Air Force would need a large sole-source buy of KC-46s to meet its requirements for enough tankers if there is not a competition. Given that members of Congress are already frustrated by the long process of making the KC-46 operational, with the latest schedule targeting October 2025, a large buy for more of the aircraft is not a popular idea among some on Capitol Hill.

However, with the KC-Z to be a full, clean-sheet design that could incorporate more advanced technologies and different designs—including possibly a blended wing body—moving the pre-analysis of alternatives work to next year from 2030 seems unlikely.

If the Air Force can move the KC-Z program forward to the point where it would require only one or two years of additional acquisitions of more KC-46s, the lawmakers could go along with that, the staffer says. But the plan would need to be outlined relatively quickly, with the next budget cycle another “target of opportunity” to have the Air Force proceed with a KC-Y competition.

In June, the service released a solicitation for an Advanced Aerial-Refueling Family of Systems for the KC-Z, looking at capabilities including stealth, improved situational awareness, self-protection and autonomy, among others.

Lt. Gen. Clint Hinote, head of Air Force Futures, tells Aviation Week that the service needs to use advanced modeling and simulation to inform what kind of tanker it wants. For example, if the service wants to proceed with future operational concepts, including increased use of heavy bombers and palletized munitions from large aircraft, that in turn would require large tankers with greater amounts of fuel to be offloaded at range. However, if the service instead is looking at using a larger number of smaller aircraft, including possibly refuelable uncrewed aircraft systems, smaller tankers would be required in larger numbers.

“We don’t know how far we want to accelerate,” Hinote says. “I think the learning that we have to do to get what would feel like an [analysis of alternatives] that we can be confident in, that’s a lot of learning that has to happen in a fairly short amount of time. There are ways that we may be able to accelerate that learning.”

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.