It’s a army pilot’s nightmare: you arrive on your airborne refueling however nobody’s there—simply empty sky above the ocean that may quickly swallow your fuel-dry plane. That’s the scenario U.S. pilots are more likely to face in a battle towards China except the Pentagon rapidly makes some modifications in its funding priorities and operational ideas.
Aerial refueling has lengthy underpinned the U.S. army’s means to promptly deploy forces and maintain operations at theater scales. However the Air Pressure’s tanker power has shrunk from 701 to 473 tankers over the previous few many years and faces main readiness challenges, even because it continues to maintain a unprecedented tempo of “regular” operations. Worse nonetheless, the Folks’s Republic of China is more and more able to attacking plane and airbases, which might attrite plane and power planners to struggle in much less efficient and extra predictable methods. DoD should rapidly enhance its aerial refueling structure.
Begin on the bottom. If a battle with China broke out tomorrow, U.S. air refueling operations can be restricted most severely not by the tanker fleet however by the mere dozen or so Indo-Pacific airfields which have adequate runway, ramp area, gas shops—and whose governments will be anticipated to grant entry. This susceptible archipelago of gas would help comparatively few tankers to start with, and fewer nonetheless after Chinese language strikes start.
Negotiating for brand spanking new and repairing and increasing the capability of current airfields ought to subsequently be a high Air Pressure precedence, even when it comes at the price of tanker procurement. We calculate that spending $633 million per 12 months over the following decade (and $400 million thereafter) to Indo-Pacific posture and maritime tankers that may ship gas to airfields might increase employable tanker capability within the theater by 63 % inside a decade and enormously enhance operational resilience.
Additionally wanted are enhancements in command and management, communications, and fleet optimization instruments. Throughout peacetime, these might enhance tanker availability and decrease prices. Throughout crises, they might enhance tanker survivability and permit tankers to function in a extra distributed and agile method on the bottom and within the air.
Lastly, including cost-effective defensive methods to present and future tankers would enable them to ship gas nearer to threats, thus maximizing the vary and endurance of supported plane. The applied sciences for C3 and self-defense enhancements are largely mature and may very well be adopted by the tanker fleet throughout the subsequent 5 years.
Air Pressure leaders may also have to speed up recapitalization of the aerial refueling fleet by way of the near-term KC-Y and medium-term Okay-Z tanker applications, given rising operational dangers and competing calls for on funding.
The highest candidates for KC-Y are the Boeing KC-46A and the Lockheed Martin Subsequent Technology Tanker (LMXT), a modified model of the Airbus A330 Multi Function Tanker Transport.
The LMXT can carry extra gas than the KC-46A, which might enable it to help missions with fewer plane, thus saving working prices on some missions throughout peacetime and decreasing operational complexity throughout crises or conflicts. And just like the KC-10 that’s being retired, the LMXT excels on the long-range, high-capacity offloads wanted for giant operations from distant airfields, akin to these discovered all through the Indo-Pacific.
However the smaller KC-46A requires much less ramp area, which implies that an all-Pegasus fleet would possibly truly be capable to ship extra gas from a given base, albeit utilizing extra tankers and floor and air personnel. The KC-46A additionally doubtless prices much less to acquire and function than the LMXT, and the U.S. Air Pressure might keep away from incurring some prices by deciding on the KC-46A and growing tanker fleet commonality.
All through the 2020s, the U.S. Air Pressure can methodically fund know-how maturation, design, and prototyping efforts to extend tanker survivability and launch a follow-on tanker program. The long run tanker, termed Okay-Z(M), ought to doubtless occupy a medium-sized area on the airfield, be fuel-efficient, and be capable to refuel a minimum of six fighters or one transport plane at vary. As a result of it will stay outdoors extremely contested areas and will defend itself towards some missiles by way of safety methods and a balanced strategy to signature administration, the Okay-Z(M) wouldn’t require a extremely stealthy and costly design.The potential for making the Okay-Z(M) a extremely automated unmanned plane needs to be examined for its operational and lifecycle price advantages. Conversely, the U.S. Air Pressure ought to keep away from small or very small designs that may carry inadequate gas and rely upon “shuttling” backwards and forwards from a bigger tanker, and very-low-observable tankers that may be costly to develop and procure.
In 2022, the U.S. aerial refueling enterprise is shedding altitude. The Air Pressure should act rapidly to enhance and change its getting old tanker fleet earlier than its growing working and upkeep prices devour modernization funds—leaving a smaller, weaker aerial refueling power and in flip Joint Pressure.
Timothy A. Walton is a senior fellow on the Hudson Institute’s Heart for Protection Ideas and Know-how. He not too long ago revealed a report with Bryan Clark titled “Resilient Aerial Refueling: Safeguarding the U.S. Army’s World Attain.”