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​Next-gen tanker must be survivable, not stealthy

The US Air Force’s KC-Z tanker may not be stealthy, but should be persistent and able to change its waveform signature management, according to the service’s head of air mobility command.

Gen Carlton Everhart clarified earlier comments he made last September, when he told reporters the USAF was considering whether the next-generation tanker should include standoff, stealth or penetrating capabilities.

During a 2 March interview at the Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida, Everhart told reporters the tanker must maintain persistence and survivabililty as it flies close to other USAF aircraft. He clarified that the tanker may not be stealthy, but should fend off enemy aircraft by manipulating radar signatures.

“I don’t consider it stealth, I consider it waveform management,” Everhart says. “How do we protect that signature, that’s what we talk about.”

Whether that waveform management entails a serpentine shape would depend upon the results of a tanker capabilities-based assessment study which will conclude this summer, he adds.

Industry may be ahead of the air force with potential designs and on the floor at AWS, several vendors showed off a lifting wing body design. Those shapes often indicate a stealthy signature, but could also provide up to 70% more efficiency over a tube and wing design, Everhart says. Combined with USAF and NASA engine research, which could increase an aircraft’s efficiency by 30%, a lifting body design could increase efficiency by 100%, he adds.

If KC-Z becomes a material solution, the USAF could leverage the lifting body design as a common platform for other missions, from cargo mobility platform to moving distinguished visitors.

“That persistence can also translate into spin-off technologies that can also go into our mobility weapons systems,” Everhart says. “We’re also teaming up with research labs and other folks to look at the high value aircraft assets that we have.”

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