Air Mobility Command Already Looking Beyond New KC-46 Aerial Tanker
While the KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling tanker is still in development, Air Force Air Mobility Command is already pondering what comes next.
Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, AMC commander, said he is often asked why he is already looking at modernization of the tanker fleet while the Boeing-built KC-46 has yet to be deployed. The follow-on to that program has already been dubbed the KC-Y.
“Because there are 179 of them,” he said of the number of planned Pegasus buys. “I’ve got 300 other tankers to replace, roughly,” he told reporters in Washington, D.C.
“The most heavy demand of my assets are the air refuelers. ... There is just an insatiable need for gas. There just is,” Everhart said.
“It’s a tanker war,” he said of the conflict in the Middle East. “You can’t do it without [them]. It’s not a boastful thing. It’s just a fact,” he added.
From 2012 to 2016, the KC-135 overflew its programmed hours by 237 percent and the KC-10 by 178 percent, he said.
As far as the KC-Y, the Air Force is working on a capabilities-based assessment that will inform the service as to what the future tanker might be. “All options will be on the table,” he said.
That might include a Bravo model of the KC-46, an entirely new aircraft using technologies that are experimental today, or an off-the-shelf model made by a U.S. or foreign manufacturer. Since a new generation of airlifters will be needed around the same time, the Air Force may acquire one aircraft that can do both jobs, he suggested.
“We will see if that survives first contact three miles down that way,” he said referring to Congress and the possibility it could be a foreign-designed aircraft.
Competition breeds excellence and drives down costs. “I don’t care where they come from,” Everhart said.
Since this follow-on to the KC-46 would not be needed until the 2030s, it may be a radically new airframe based on what are now cutting edge technologies. He is interested in NASA’s Green Horizon’s program, which is funding novel ways to reduce fuel consumption in aircraft.
After the study is completed, he will ask industry what might be possible. “They are the ones who know what’s going to happen in 20 years, or 30 years,” he said. “With these new designs coming out — I’m just fascinated.”
More immediate initiatives to improve fuel efficiencies in military aircraft ultimately benefit the tankers, which are overstretched, he said. New engine technology combined with modernized cockpits, for example, will allow the C-5 airlifter to go longer distances nonstop. “That’s a game changer,” he said.
“I can now take off at Dover, Delaware, and land in Istanbul, Turkey, nonstop. I don’t have to do aerial refueling,” he said. That lowers the demand for the tankers’ services.
The flip side to this is the new F-35 joint strike fighters, which require a lot of fuel. “That’s a very thirsty aircraft,” he said.
The KC-Y will also have to be more stealthy and survivable. Currently, there are first-generation tankers servicing fifth-generation fighters. Enemies don’t have to defeat the stealthy jets. Opponents only have to take out, or force the tankers to retreat, to eliminate the threat, he said.
He had nothing but praise for the KC-46 program, which has suffered from a year-long schedule slip. The Government Accountability Office in a recent report warned of more possible delays.
Compared to past Air Force acquisitions programs, Everhart said the Pegasus was successful so far.
“If you look at the KC-46 program overall: pretty successful. It’s going through tests right now. We’re finding moments of discover. That’s what [testing] is all about, but we will have a war fighting airplane ready to go on day one because of the tests,” he said.