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They may not command the attention of stealth fighter jets, nuclear-armed submarines or the latest in armored vehicle innovations, yet aerial refueling tankers could prove to be an impactful, if lesser recognized, reason for victory in war.
This is particularly true in areas such as the Pacific, where range, power projection and combat mission reach would be stressed in potentially unprecedented ways. In any kind of major engagement with China, for instance, effective tankers could more than double the range of carrier-launched fighter jets such as F-35Cs and F/A-18s.
KC-Y Bridge Tanker Program
Perhaps these are some of the reasons why the Air Force is moving quickly to deploy a near-term “bridge” tanker to support operations until sufficient numbers of the KC-46 can arrive. The program, called the KC-Y Bridge Tanker program, seeks to militarize the latest in commercial innovation for maritime and land combat missions. It might not even be a stretch to see tankers as a primary reason why the U.S. could prevail against China’s growing arsenal of long-range “carrier-killer” missiles.
The primary aim of the Bridge Tanker program is to begin replacing the aging KC-135 Stratotankers which are now nearing the end of their service life. The KC-135 will be 70 years old when the USAF receives its last planned KC-46A in 2029, Jane’s Defense reports.
The move suggests an Air Force interest in nearer-term readiness, as a fast-produced, commercially derived Bridge Tanker would indeed be available for operations much sooner than the full expected force of KC-46As.
One offering by Lockheed Martin called the LMXT seeks to over-deliver on the prescribed mission by, in some respects, out-performing the KC-46, developers say.
The Lockheed offering is based on the Airbus Multi-role tanker A330 MRTT aircraft in service with 13 key allies and includes a boom/drogue refueling system, fly-by-wire automatic boom/air-to-air refueling systems and advanced sensor cameras.
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.”
Lockheed advocates for the aircraft add that the LMXT has more fuel capacity than the KC-46 and can operate from far more airfields in the Pacific than the KC-46. This could be critical, given the maritime expanse of the Pacific and the amount of distance separating various tanker launch points on land.
LMXT & F35Cs
One dynamic which immediately comes to mind is the combined value added of pairing the LMXT with a carrier-launched F-35C as a way to attack Chinese coastal and mainland areas from safer stand-off distance.
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 such as the DF-21D.
According to numerous reports and statements in the Chinese media, 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.
LMXT & F-35 Networked Missions
Secondly, an LMXT could support more dispersed, yet networked missions wherein a disaggregated group of F-35s could cover wide swaths of territory by virtue of operating with double the range due to refueling.
Such a dynamic would optimize the networking and ISR potential of interconnected F-35s and open up a much wider attack envelope for carrier commanders looking to extend reach. Dwell time is fundamental to this as well, as a refueled F-35 will be positioned to spend much more time over target areas in position to respond to new intelligence information, enemy movements or changing target data. More time in the air, enabled by the LMXT, could prove decisive in any campaign.
In the event of a war contingency in the Pacific, perhaps several LMXTs could be based in Japan and fly up to support F-35s transiting toward the Chinese coastline to support an amphibious attack. 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 would send China a message that its ballistic missile launchers, some of which are known to be road mobile, could be vulnerable to stealth fighter attack from distances beyond their reach.
Defensive Combat Patrols
As part of this equation, the question of survivability always comes up when strategists discuss the tactical attributes and limitations of larger, less-stealthy fixed-wing tanker aircraft. Interestingly, there is a way to offset this increased vulnerability and improve tankers’ ability to function effectively in high-threat environments. 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.”
“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,” the paper writes.
If more fighter jets can stay in the air by virtue of being refueled, then several of them could protect the LMXT as it operates in higher-threat areas.
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.
Perhaps Lockheed’s LMXT, based upon an Airbus airframe, could become a longer-term option for the Air Force given that sensors, avionics, communications technology and even refueling systems can be upgraded by software in coming years.
The Air Force’s Bridge Tanker program certainly seems intended to meet a pressing short-term need for available tankers to deploy in coming years while sufficient numbers of the KC-46 continue to arrive. Yet there may be another interesting dynamic to this equation beyond purely tanking, given the Air Force’s heavy emphasis upon multi-domain networking and air-land-sea integrated operations.
Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2)
How might an effective commercially derived tanker, intended to replace the aging KC-135s, fit into the Air Force’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) program? As an easily upgradeable, commercially-based tanker aircraft intended to be produced quickly to meet an immediate need, why couldn’t the aircraft be engineered in a multi-mission capacity with the sensing and command and control systems sufficient to plug into an expansive combat network.
One key offering for the Air Force’s KC-Y program is Lockheed Martin’s LMXT, a militarized variant of the Airbus A330 MRTT Multi-role tanker. Lockheed developers say that the aircraft, already in service with 13 key U.S. allies, includes a boom/drogue refueling system, fly-by-wire automatic boom/air-to-air refueling systems and advanced sensor cameras. Lockheed developers say it 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.
Alongside these tanking advantages, why wouldn’t the LMXT also be engineered to plug into JADC2 and function as a combat relay “node” or command and control system within a larger meshed network of interconnected platforms.
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.”
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 linking airborne fighters with armored vehicles and even surface ships as part of a coordinated combat system.
In this respect, the LMXT could support and refuel carrier-launched F-35Cs as well as land-based fixed wing assets needing to expand mission scope across vast areas of operation.
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. Further, a DoD report from 2020 says that tankers can provide critical support to short-take-off-and-landing aircraft needing to take-off with less fuel due to the absence of a runway.
In order to function with great effectiveness in a region such as the Pacific, 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. Given that the LMXT would need “land basing” throughout the theater, there are some interesting ways in which protective strategies can be employed, according to a paper from Air University at the Air Force Research Institute. The paper, titled “Basing Strategies in Air Refueling Forces in Anti-Access/Area-Denial environments,” specifically takes up the issue of pursuing offensive operations against China in the Pacific.
“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 husbanded in consideration of broader strategic concerns,” the paper states.
As explained in the paper, should LMXTs be properly based, sheltered and shielded, and perhaps even escorted by armed fighter jets, vast ocean areas throughout the region could operate air assets at massively expanded ranges. It might also fall within the realm of the possible to arm an 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. 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. Should a tanker perform an aerial bomb-drop mission, cargo or ammunition supply delivery or sensor-driven aerial reconnaissance while networked throughout the force, other fixed wing aircraft might not need to fly, a scenario which of course reduces operational risk.
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