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Video Above: F-35s to Europe

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Air Force senior leaders regularly talk about global forward presence when it comes to deterrence strategy and an ability to project power in vital strategic areas. Such a concept, which continues to be refined and applied in key places such as the Pacific and Europe at the moment, takes on new urgency in light of both rapid Chinese military modernization and current Russian provocations.

KC-Y Bridge Tanker Program in Europe

Of course the Air Forces’ KC-Y bridge tanker program would seem fundamental to this kind of strategy, as it is designed to greatly empower, strengthen and enable this kind of protective posture. A “bridge” tanker such as Lockheed’s emerging LMXT, which could wind up becoming a long-term asset, might be particularly useful in places such as the Pacific where the vast, expansive ocean distances challenge any ability to operate land-launched air assets without substantial range extensions enabled by tankers. 

However, what about Europe?

Given the current threat environment, it seems additional tanking might be able to greatly improve tactical possibilities for theater commanders looking at deterrence options. While Europe presents a much different geographical picture which does lend itself more readily to the possibility of land-launching air assets within range to hold Russia at risk, a “bridge” tanker could nonetheless be of great significance. 

This would be true when it comes to dwell time over targets and an ability to respond to emerging targets as new intelligence arrives. Newer networking technologies built into fighter jets such as the F-35 and F-22 enable pilots to better receive new, real-time updated information in flight. Fighters could greatly expand any tactical impact should they be able to return to safer air space and refuel with a “bridge tanker” without having to land. Instead, stealth fighters could fly back into airspace less threatened by air defenses and then return for extended missions over hostile territory without absorbing the risk of landing and refueling on the ground.

Should one apply this kind of tactical reasoning to Eastern Europe, particularly in light of current force-structure adjustments adding more firepower to deter a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. An integrated group of NATO 4th and 5th generation air assets in Eastern Europe, for example, might greatly impact the effectiveness of any deterrence posture. This would be particularly true should groups of attack jets operate with an ability to project and sustain offensive air missions to protect Ukraine or threatened areas of Eastern Europe.

Deterrence with Russia

Exploring this just a little further, the possibility of air power could prove decisive in any kind of deterrence posture in support of a strong ground force. Russia operates as many as 12,000 tanks according to Global Firepower, and depending upon its willingness to absorb casualties and damage, the country might feel emboldened and capable of annexing Ukraine on the ground without having to confront NATO

Absent extremely powerful F-35 enabled Eastern European air power, Russia might even think of itself as capable of annexing areas beyond Ukraine into Europe. Therefore, an operational, networked and upgraded LMXT able to threaten extended stealth air attack possibilities over high-threat areas of Ukraine or Russia, might cause Russian aggressors to pause when considering offensive action.

LMXT KC-Y Bridge Tanker Program Manufacturing 

The US Air Force and Lockheed have taken large steps forward to build the new LMXT KC-Y “Bridge Tanker” program by identifying Mobile Alabama and Marietta Georgia as manufacturing sites.

The LMXT “Bridge Tanker” offering, while tailored to align with the Air Force’s requirement to deploy an interim, fast-producible tanker until the emerging KC-46 arrives in large numbers, may introduce new generation of capability such that it will itself evolve into long-term service for decades with the Air Force. The LMXT involves a partnership between Lockheed and Airbus’ A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT), yet this announcement ensures the new aircraft will be American-built.

"Establishing this production work in Alabama and Georgia confirms Lockheed Martin's commitment that the LMXT will be built in America, by Americans, for Americans," Lockheed Martin Chairman, President, and CEO James Taiclet, said in a company press statement. "The LMXT will strengthen global security by enabling our U.S. service members to carry out their most critical missions at extended ranges. At home, the LMXT will strengthen job growth and manufacturing by drawing on the experience and talents of a high-tech American workforce in two states that are proven leaders in aviation."

KC-46 Pegasus

A KC-46 Pegasus from the 97th Air Mobility Wing, assigned to the 56th Air Refueling Squadron, Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, refuels an F-16 Fighting Falcon on December 7, 2020. The KC-46 has been approved to refuel all variants of the F-15 Eagle and F-16 during U.S. Transportation Command-tasked missions. (1st Lt. Daniel Lee/Air Force)

The decision of course means billions of dollars will likely pour into those economies and thousands of jobs are going to emerge to meet manufacturing demands. In total, Lockheed’s programs in Georgia and Alabama will involve more than 630 suppliers, and the defense company reports its overall economic impact across the two states totals more than $8.3 billion annually. Airbus has already been assembling commercial aircraft in Mobile since 2015 and has generated more than 15,000 jobs in the area.

It is expected that Airbust will leverage its commercial aviation expertise building the planes and the airframes, which will then be fully militarized by Lockheed at their facility in Marietta Georgia, where the companies completes final production for of its C-130J Hercules cargo aircraft.

“Lockheed Martin's Marietta facility has produced some of the most well-known military aircraft since 1951 to include every production C-130 Hercules (2,600-plus), the C-5 Galaxy/Super Galaxy, the P-3 Orion, the F-22 Raptor and the C-141 Starlifter. More than 4,500 employees currently work at the sitem” the Lockheed statement said.

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The decision to base both production activities in the US bears upon an interesting and often discussed issue related to questions of “buying American.” Some are of the view that large weapons developers should, by and large, only “buy American,” yet others clearly emphasize that such thinking should extend to incorporate a wide range of trusted US allies, in part because many of brings billions in jobs, business and manufacturing expertise to the US. Friendly foreign support for collaborative weapons programs are extremely crucial for both security and economic reasons, particularly given the growing strength of US alliances with nations in a position to greatly impact the deterrence posture. For instance, Japan in the Pacific and NATO allies in Europe completely change the deterrence equation when it comes to containing Russia or China.

LMXT Bridge Tanker Mission Scope

As Lockheed Martin and Airbus surge into production of the emerging LMXT “Bridge Tanker” with its announcement to build the aircraft in Georgia and Alabama, there may be some interesting questions about just how expansive its mission scope may become.

The aircraft was designed to quickly and efficiently bring several as of yet unprecedented tanking technologies such as the world’s first “automatic boom/air-to-air refueling system.” The LMXT will improve range and fuel offload capacity when compared to existing tankers and operate with a “fly-by-wire” boom.

At the same time, the LMXT incorporates a series of technologies and attributes likely to greatly expand the mission scope for the aircraft. While the LMXT can of course primarily function as a tanker in terms of mission focus, the aircraft can also operate MEDEVAC missions as it is built with a permanently installed aeromedevac suite and fly with a forklift accessible cargo capacity for six military pallets.

Alongside these ways the LMXT could impact operations beyond refueling, the aircraft is specifically being configured to support multi-domain networking missions. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of the potential expanded mission scope of the LMXT is that it is being built with technical standards sufficient to support the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2). JADC2 is a cutting edge and vital multi-service effort to operate the force as a “meshed” network of interconnected nodes able to share data in real time and optimize targeting and attacks through fast sensor-to-shooter pairing.

Video Above: LMXT

These added variables create a circumstance wherein the LMXT could operate as an impactful multi-mission platform capable of functioning as a sensor node within an integrated, multi-domain warfare system. The aircraft could deliver weapons, cargo and supplies while also performing time-sensitive MEDEVAC missions. Lockheed developers explain that the LMXT will operate with advanced cameras and rear view sensors such that it can gather and process surveillance data while in-flight for refueling missions.

All of these factors are likely informing the Air Force’s longer-term plans for the aircraft intended to merely function as a “bridge,” meaning that multi-dimensional attributes of the LMXT might lead to it taking on a much longer service life and expanded operational scope. 

Perhaps it will out-perform the emerging KC-46, a program which has struggled with numerous developmental growing pains and may not ultimately reach its anticipated or hoped-for combat performance? 

Perhaps the new LMXT will fly alongside the KC-46 much longer than anticipated, something which would make sense given the global need for dispersed, long-range operations and the crucial supportive role refuelers will play within that mission. Long range enemy anti-ship missiles, for example, could lead carriers to operate at much further distances off shore, requiring refuelers to ensure the deck-launched fighters can reach their targets and operate with sufficient dwell time. 

The vastness of the Pacific is such that allied operations throughout the theater will be severely challenged without sufficient tanking support, a strategic circumstance likely to encourage the Air Force and Pentagon to extend the service life and mission scope of its new “bridge tanker.”

LMXT Building Plan

Lockheed Martin and Airbus are moving quickly on a collaborative plan to build the new LMXT KC-Y “bridge tanker” for the Air Force through an integrated commercial and military developmental process.

As a way to accommodate the Air Force’s need to produce something capable quickly in the near term as a “bridge” until the KC-46 arrives in sufficient numbers, developers are building the LMXT based upon the successfully constructed and AirBus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport. This effort not only ensures the aircraft can be mass-produced on the near-term timeframe needed by the Air Force but also helps build in interoperability and what’s often referred to as “open architecture” referring to a strategic technical effort to build with common standards such that the aircraft can quickly and efficiently be upgraded as new technologies emerge.

Much of this can be accomplished through common IP Protocol standards and software upgrades enabling the avionics, on-board computing and sensor technologies to receive rapid updates able to improve performance and ensure the aircraft can interoperate across multiple-domains in joint operations. Airbus has a recent history of building viable, commercially advanced aircraft such as the A320 and A220 airliners going back to 2015, so Lockheed sees great advantage in leveraging this production infrastructure.

Once the airframes and integrated commercial technologies are completed at Airbus’ facility in Mobile, Ala., they will go to Lockheed’s facility in Marietta, Ga., to be converted from a commercial aircraft into the militarized LMXT tanker. The multiphase plan is a by-product of a multi-year Memorandum of Agreement going back to 2018. The collaborative effort, Lockheed developers say, is to integrate a proven airframe now in service with allies around the globe with state-of-the-art military technology bringing “Air Force-only” capabilities.

LMXT

Lockheed Martin is offering its LMXT built on the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) platform for the US Air Force's Bridge Tanker effort. A top USAF officer does not expect large requirements changes between the KC-46A currently being procured and the Bridge Tanker to prioritize faster fielding of the new aircraft. (Lockheed Martin)

“Lockheed Martin's presence in northern Alabama spans more than five decades, with a concentration in the rotorcraft and hypersonics sectors. More than 2,600 Lockheed Martin employees live and work in Alabama. In October 2021, Lockheed Martin opened an advanced production facility in Courtland focused on hypersonic strike production,” the Lockheed statement said.

Part of the rationale for the two-phase building strategy is to optimize the best value from both Airbus and Lockheed and then fully integrate them into a single air platform. The Lockheed-Airbus manufacturing team is likely looking to leverage the substantial expertise resident in the workforces in both Marietta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization