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The Air Force KC-Y program is focused on deploying a combat ready tanker aircraft that can be produced quickly and perform high-value refueling operations.
It is envisioned as a “bridge” tanker to offer something operational as an interim solution until the now-in-development KC-46 tanker arrives in sufficient numbers. The Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers are nearing the end of their service life, a situation which drives the need for the KC-Y Bridge Tanker.
A few of the industry offerings, however, may prove durable, high-performing and “upgradeable” such that they can emerge as long-term options for the Air Force. While always critical to global combat operations, tankers are even more urgently needed given the current threat environment in Eastern Europe and the Pacific.
Lockheed Martin LMXT
Lockheed’s LMXT offering may by some estimations already be out performing the KC-46.
The LMXT is based on an Airbus Multi-role tanker A330 MRTT aircraft now flying with as many as 13 U.S. allies. It is engineered with a number of key innovations designed to be upgradable as new technologies emerge. It includes a boom/drogue refueling system, fly-by-wire automatic boom/air-to-air refueling system and advanced sensors.
The aircraft was specifically engineered with technical standards such that it can accommodate new technologies, avionics, computing and sensor applications as they become available. The fly-by-wire automatic boom is precisely the kind of technology which could be easily upgraded with new software, electronics and computer processing systems.
Company information says it “at 2,000 nautical miles from its departing base the LMXT can offload 60% more fuel than the KC-46A and at 3,000 nautical miles the gap grows to more than 150-percent.”
Due to its having a larger fuel carrying capacity than the KC-46, the LMXT could prove particularly significant in operations in the Pacific theater given the dispersed geography and need for extended-range attack. A fighter jet with a combat radius of 300 nautical miles could, for instance, wind up operating with an ability to strike and destroy targets at twice the previous distance with a high-tech, upgradeable modern tanker aircraft such as LMXT.
Perhaps an LMXT could take off from Japan and refuel a carrier-launched F-35C from more than 1,000 miles off the coast of China. This could prove critical to survivability for carrier strike groups as they could still attack and project power from distances beyond the tactical range of Chinese land-based “carrier killer” anti-ship missiles such as the DF-21D and DF-26.
A key function of these weapons can be described in terms of an “anti-access/area-denial” weapons preventing U.S. Navy forces from coming close enough to strike targets within mainland China.
An F-35C has a reported combat radius of roughly five-to-six hundred miles, meaning that is how far it can travel without refueling before needing to turn around. When refueled by an LMXT, however, the stealth fighter jet could conduct effective combat operations from as far as 1,000 miles or more offshore, placing it out of reach of some of the highly-touted Chinese anti-ship missiles.
The DF-21D can travel ranges out to 900 miles, meaning an F-35C might need to launch too far away to reach inland targets, unless it were refueled mid-flight by an LMXT of course.
Perhaps LMXTs based in Guam or at allied airfields throughout various parts of SouthEast Asia could hold Chinese forces at risk from twice the distance. This kind of initiative might function as a deterrent for China as it would send a message that its ballistic missile launchers might be vulnerable to air attack from previously unexpected ranges.
Dwell time is also of great significance to this, as a tanker aircraft can extend target seeking loiter time over hostile territory for fighter jets which might otherwise need to return for refueling. This multiplies the ability to project power and sustain attack operations in the event of a need for a prolonged air attack campaign.
Alongside these tanking advantages, why wouldn’t the LMXT also be engineered to plug into the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control program (JADC2) and function as a combat relay “node” or command and control system within a larger meshed network of interconnected platforms. That clearly seems to align with Lockheed’s effort to engineer its commercially-derived, yet militarized platform with open standards such that it can be upgraded.
As mentioned in a TNI report on LMXT earlier this year, Lockheed’s statements on the LMXT seem consistent with the idea of building a plane with multi-mission functionality; a company statement describes the LMXT as “a multi-domain operations node that connects the LMXT to the larger battlespace, increasing onboard situational awareness to provide resilient communications and datalinks for assets across the force.”
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Lockheed’s reference to datalinks, multi-domain operations and onboard situational awareness seem to further substantiate the concept of how something like the KC-Y could take on additional tactical functionality within a broader multi-service “information warfare” and “sensor-to-shooter” strategy. Fighter jets coming to refuel could also receive crucial command and control updates from the LMXT.
As part of this kind of secure networking, an LMXT could link airborne fighters with armored vehicles and even surface ships as part of a coordinated combat system. Given these operational possibilities, It seems possible that offerings such as the LMXT might wind up becoming long-term platforms given their ability to upgrade and keep pace with emerging technology.
The outcome of any kind of major power confrontation with China in the Pacific would likely rely heavily upon air supremacy and the country able to operate with greater combat success in the sky. Amphibious assaults or surface attack, along with any prospect of ground operation would require substantial air superiority, a circumstance which highlights the need for tanker aircraft. Refueled aircraft in the Pacific could enable amphibious operations to succeed to shore attack unimpeded by enemy air power or permit safe passage of land forces once ashore.
These are all likely reasons why the Air Force is moving quickly to develop its KC-Y interim tanker program, and effort to build and deploy an operational interim solution to meet pressing operational needs until sufficient numbers of the KC-46 Tanker become available.
Lockheed Martin is offering its LMXT tanker platform, a militarized variant of the already operational Airbus Multi-role tanker A330 MRTT aircraft. The rationale here is to offer something upgradeable, currently able to be produced and ready for operational service. The LMXT also draws upon extensive amounts of advanced automation and “fly-by-wire” technology to enable semi-autonomous operations. This increases speed and efficiency, lowers the cognitive burden placed on crews and positions the aircraft to be easily upgraded through software enhancements.
When considering the Air Force’s KC-Y Bridge Tanker program and the need for extended combat range across dispersed areas such as the Pacific, one might be inclined to view large, fixed-wing tanker aircraft as non-stealthy and therefore much more vulnerable to enemy fire. Is there a way that these aircraft can be survivable enough to support extended operations as needed in a high-threat airwar environment?
This is a very real question, as large fixed wing tankers would need to launch from land locations within reach of carrier strike groups seeking to extend the combat radius of their carrier air wing. There are some interesting ways through which larger fixed-wing tankers such as LMXT could mitigate risk while still performing a critical mission.
The vulnerability of these kinds of aircraft can be greatly offset by having fighter jets fly alongside and guard or protect the tankers. An LMXT could also quite possibly increase survivability by operating drones from its cargo bay and relying upon multi-mission computing, avionics and digital architecture to take on a wider range of missions.
A 2016 study in the Air Force Institute of Technology, called “Effectiveness Based Design of a Tactical Tanker Aircraft,” explains that tanker mission range and scope can be massively extended in high-risk areas by “defensive counterair combat patrols.”
A TNI story from earlier this year quotes the paper as saying “Fighter aircraft are assigned to fly defensive counterair combat air patrols on High Value Airborne Asset (HVAA) sorties to protect tankers, airborne radar, and surveillance aircraft. The objective of a HVAA sortie is to intercept or destroy enemy attempts to attack the high-value asset.”
These kinds of protections would be key in a Pacific engagement given that potential enemies such as China now have more long-range sensors, drones, weapons and space assets they could draw upon to deny U.S. forces access to its coastline. Additional reach enabled by tankers could enable cargo planes to deliver supplies, ammo or troops across much greater distances and F-35s could leverage their ISR and networking capabilities across a wide combat area.
The LMXT can offload as much as 60-percent more fuel than a KC-46A and grows that gap to 150-percent at 3,000 nautical miles, a Lockheed statement says. Building the LMXT for multi-mission sensing, data transmission and reconnaissance makes sense in many respects and has some precedent with the KC-135 which was itself used to a certain extent for these kinds of functions as well.
In order to function with great effectiveness in a region such as the Pacific, a previous TNI story writes... “the LMXT would need sufficient basing options in the region, yet also need to be safeguarded from China’s known arsenal of short, medium and long-range ballistic missiles.”
A paper from Air University at the Air Force Research Institute titled “Basing Strategies in Air Refueling Forces in Anti-Access/Area-Denial Environments,” describes a few basing strategies which could improve tanker survivability.
“US operations can impose great uncertainty on enemy command systems by degrading the fidelity and velocity of their ISR and command, control, and communications systems and by protecting forces through sheltering, deceptive basing, and/or maneuvering them faster than they can be tracked. These actions would increase and exploit the inescapable reluctance of enemy commanders to take shots at uncertain targets with weapons that are in short supply and that must be hsbanded in consideration of broader strategic concerns,” the paper states as quoted in a previous TNI story.
A properly based, sheltered and shielded LMXT, perhaps even escorted by armed fighter jets, vast ocean areas throughout the region could operate air assets at massively expanded ranges. It also seems conceivable that the Air Force could arm the LMXT with air dropped bombs or even cruise missiles or air-to-air munitions.
The Air Force is already testing air-launchers built into cargo aircraft carrying palletized weapons racks for potential aerial attack. With these kinds of applications, cargo planes and tankers can operate with built in launchers able to fire weapons or drop bombs. Senior Air Force leaders say it only makes sense to widen the combat functionality of these kinds of aircraft, given that they are already enemy targets. If a tanker performs an aerial bomb-drop mission, cargo or ammunition supply delivery or sensor-driven aerial reconnaissance, it might prevent the need for other aircraft to fly up and increase risk of enemy fire.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.