The US Air Force's head of air mobility command is calling for the service to acquire more tankers by 2035 and to possibly develop a "KC-Y" tanker to fill a procurement gap.
Based on the USAF’s current needs, Gen. Carlton Everhart says 179 Boeing KC-46 tankers the service is set to procure by 2028 are not enough. He also says the service's procurement of the future KC-Zs should be brought forward to 2035.
Even that schedule, however, would leave the US Air Force with no deliveries between 2028 and 2035 -- a gap Everhart says could be filled with an interim capability called KC-Y.
“I want to jump the leap in technology to go straight to the KC-Z,” he says. “If it means to bridge that, sure. But I’m also looking to the next leaps in technology because we do supply fuel to the nation.”
The air force will begin a study this year examining what the KC-Z tanker would look like and will start seeking investment opportunities a year after the study is completed. The USAF is considering whether the new tanker should include standoff, stealth or penetrating capabilities for an anti-access area denial environment. As the F-35 moves into denied environments, a low observable tanker should follow the fighter, Everhart says.
“We’re going to need a platform that we’ve never seen before,” he says. “The blended or hybrid wing, it’s a lifting body and it has a capability of being low observable.”
The service is also examining an unmanned tanker similar to the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray, a programme which has shifted focus from a surveillance to air refueling role.
While Everhart has targeted a 2035 time frame for KC-Z, other factors in the service’s budget (including aircraft divestment), will affect the schedule. Science and technology (S&T) funding for KC-Z has already been covered under the KC-46 programme, Everhart says.
“We gleaned some... funding off the KC-46 to help evolve the next programme,” he says. “S&T – we’ve already paid for it, it’s already been done.”