BREAKING: Air Force Scrapping Tanker Plans, Switching to ‘Next-Generation’ Approach

By Sean Carberry

Air Force photo

AURORA, Colorado — The Air Force is abandoning its KC-Y and KC-Z approach to developing and procuring refueling tankers and is instead moving to a next-generation aerial refueling model like its program to develop a sixth-generation fighter, according to a senior Air Force official.

The Air Force plan had been to procure 175 “KC-Y” tankers, also referred to as a “bridge tanker,” to replace the retiring KC-135s and fill the gap until the KC-Z tankers come into production in the 2040s, said Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“We have come to the determination that the kind of KC-XYZ strategy that was established in the 2009-2010 timeframe is no longer fit for purpose,” he told reporters at the Air & Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium.

The service has struggled for years with the procurement of tankers, and the KC-X program  which resulted in the KC-46A Pegasus produced by Boeing — is years behind schedule and hasn’t kept up with the retirement of KC-10s and KC-135s.

As the service was conducting a business case analysis for the KC-Y program and reviewing information from the Defense Department and industry, officials determined that a competitive KC-Y program would deliver too little capability improvement too late, Hunter said.

“Our assessment was that if we competed KC-Y, we get tankers back in the case of Boeing in 2032, in the case of Lockheed in 2034,” he said, adding that the last of the current KC-46 buy of 179 aircraft will be delivered in 2029. “So, we were looking at a gap of capability, gap of tanker production, under a competitive approach to KC-Y.”

And the operational analysis has shown that the threat environment calls for all aircraft, including tankers, to be more survivable and capable, he said.

“We have to have an approach that allows us to address those threats and still refuel the joint force and allow it to engage in all of the critical operations that are required for high intensity conflict,” he said.

Thus, the service has initiated an analysis of alternatives to determine Next-Generation Air-Refueling System, or NGAS, program requirements, he said. Like Next-Generation Air Dominance, which is expected to be a suite of manned and unmanned aircraft, NGAS will likely involve a mix of craft rather than one single airframe, he added.

It will start from a clean sheet of paper and not tied to any existing commercial aircraft, he said. The program will go through a complete acquisition process that would result in fielding the first increment in the mid-to-late 2030s, he said.

Hunter said that more details will be released after the release of the fiscal year 2024 Defense Department budget request, as the NGAS program will be a new start requiring funding. However, he said the analysis will examine “the ability to go deeper into contested airspace, more advanced self-protection type capabilities, more advanced networking capabilities,” he said.

“So, you know that that initial KC-Y requirement was a step in that direction, but it wasn't a progression all the way to those kinds of capabilities,” he added.

The proposed delivery of the first increment of NGAS in the late 2030s is well after the last KC-46 delivery, but it is years ahead of when the KC-Z tankers would begin fielding, he said, adding that essentially NGAS is an acceleration of the fielding of KC-Z capabilities by as much as a decade.

And because the advanced capabilities would field sooner, the gap between KC-46 and NGAS is smaller and requires a less advanced solution, he said. Thus, instead of a KC-Y program of 150 airframes, the likely plan is to procure 75 tankers that would be an upgraded KC-X “that would dovetail with the end of the current production so that we would maintain the effort to modernize the tanker fleet,” he said.

“We do expect based on the information that industry has previously provided, that that may lead us towards KC-46 as the answer for that — that five-year KC-135 recapitalization effort is what we're calling it,” he said. “But we do need to hear from industry before we make any final determinations.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to moving out with the new tanker plan will be Congress.

“There was a discussion in the last Congress about whether or not to mandate strictly a competition for the next tanker to be procured,” he said. “And ultimately, the way I guess I would interpret the way that played out in the [National Defense Authorization Act] is they said, ‘Air Force come to us with a plan, and we'll look at that plan.’”

NGAS is that plan, he said. “We think this is the right plan for the next tanker acquisition. And, you know, there is this aspect of filling the gap, but ultimately, where we're going is a competitive tanker program and one that will be competitive for years to come.

Congress will have several choices to make, he said. “Are they on board with NGAS? Do they let us get going down that path? What do they think about this KC-135 recapitalization program, do they provide guidance on that?” he continued.

“So, I think what we're trying to do is make our best case, that this is the right plan and the right path going forward,” he said.

“This tanker approach is very consistent with what I think you'll see as an overall approach to accelerating modernization — bringing key capabilities that we need in our force across Air Force and Space Force more rapidly because of the security environment, because of the need to deter and respond in some of the scenarios that the strategy directs us to,” he said. “So, I think you're going to see a lot more of these kinds of approaches.”


Topics: Air Force News, Air Power

Comments (1)

Re: BREAKING: Air Force Scrapping Tanker Plans, Switching to ‘Next-Generation’ Approach

Am I mistaken, or is the Air Force thinking of both a blended wing/body for capacity and reduced observability, and the defensive suite of the F-35? As a test, install wing-tip refueling on a B-2 digital twin to test for stability? (Some of Boeing's art comes to mind.)

Everett Puterbaugh at 11:40 AM
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