The Air Force is mapping out the unprecedented capabilities it will need in a next-generation tanker, laying out an aggressive timeline for the “KC-Z” while it is only just getting the KC-46 to operational status. It’s not expected at this point that the KC-Z will be stealthy, however.
Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Maryanne Miller said it will take a year to identify the capabilities it wants in the future tanker, a process that is beginning right now. These requirements will be driven by the threat, as laid out in the National Defense Strategy and USAF’s Next Generation Air Dominance future fighter system. “We’ll have a tanker that supports” NGAD, she said, though she said it’s too early to say what exactly what will mean; whether, for example, the future tanker will be autonomous.
“Our priority right now is going to be the KC-Z,” she said.
After figuring out what it must have to accomplish the future tanker mission, AMC will start an analysis of alternatives expected in three and five years, toward fielding an aircraft in the mid-2030s, said Maj. Gen. Mark Camerer, the command’s director of strategic plans, requirements, and programs.
“We’re at the very, very beginning trying to describe what the requirements will be,” Camerer said, adding that since this aircraft will be developed from scratch, it will be a “very large investment for the Air Force” and essential that it be done right.
While the specific requirements aren’t set, Miller said it looks for now as if stealth won’t be a requirement for KC-Z. While the tanker may need to get closer to the fight, no one knows how to keep a tanker stealthy once it deploys its refueling boom, so that feature isn’t likely to be required, she observed. Alternately, AMC is looking at a Navy study suggesting a “mother tanker:” a larger tanker that refuels smaller aircraft, which then go forward to refuel other platforms. However, she also called this prospect unlikely. (end of excerpt)
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