LMXT: The Future of the U.S. Air Force and Nightmare for China?

October 12, 2021 Topic: LMXT Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: LMXT TankerLMXT Lockheed MartinAir ForceLMXT China

LMXT: The Future of the U.S. Air Force and Nightmare for China?

Harry J. Kazianis, Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest and Executive Editor of the National Interest, spoke with Ken Moss, LMXT Capture Manager at Lockheed Martin, on the new LMXT program.

Harry J. Kazianis, Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest and Executive Editor of the National Interest, spoke with Ken Moss, LMXT Capture Manager at Lockheed Martin, on the new LMXT program. Here is a lightly edited version of the conversation:

Q1: LMXT seems to be very focused on providing long-range in-air refueling capability. Clearly, that would help dramatically in a potential kinetic conflict with a certain rising nation-state in Asia. How much thought was put into the Indo-Pacific when it comes to LMXT?

Answer: U.S. Air Force officials identified specific scenarios that demanded increased fuel offload at range. Lockheed Martin evaluated the LMXT in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific. The stressors of the Pacific theater scenarios, namely extreme ranges and limited basing best highlighted the advantages the LMXT offered the U.S. Air Force. The challenges of the Pacific theater underscored the key “discriminators” in LMXT that leaders and planners understand and appreciate as critical to future operations.

Q2: What are some of the key ways in which LMXT could support a carrier-launched air attack from great distances off an enemy coastline?  How might it support a massive maritime attack or amphibious assault?

Answer: One of the advantages of the superior LMXT fuel load is the flexibility it provides operational planners across all services, not just the U.S. Air Force. For example, it is easy to imagine the LMXT’s significant capabilities being leveraged by a Carrier Task Force (CTF). First, because of LMXT’s range and offload, it could be based at significant standoff distances while supporting the CTF, providing necessary fuel, and remaining in the area to act as a communications node during operations. Increased fuel availability would provide more aircraft the legs needed to get into the fight and allow those aircraft to carry heavier ordnance loads in certain scenarios. The proposed LMXT communications capabilities will also provide added resilience to the Command-and-Control network for the Task Force. The capability to provide secure communications in a contested environment will be a critical capability in any combat scenario.

The proposed JADC2 suite offers options for additional mobile C2 of air assets, possibly in support of maritime attack or an amphibious assault. An LMXT could act as a mobile ISR mothership, refueling and supporting a fleet of ISR drones while actively controlling those assets on-demand to meet real-time requests of the Commander. Using secure comms, the LMXT would feed this information to the necessary combat unit. Coupling the JADC2 suite with the persistence and offload capabilities of the LMXT opens many new possible ways of supporting maritime combat operations.

Q3: As an aircraft emerging from and aligned with existing, yet highly effective commercial technologies, what are some ways it can be ruggedized for military operations?

Answer: The LMXT will be based on the Multi-Role Tanker/Transport (MRTT) which is already a military aircraft. The MRTT has been “ruggedized” to meet the standards of numerous allies around the world, including NATO partners. LMXT will be combat-ready on day one and equipped to meet or exceed all Air Force requirements.

Q4: Could the LMXT be multi-mission in so far as being able to contribute to or participate as a "node" within a broader JADC2 force construct? A command and control node? Could the LMXT refuel an unmanned platform in the future should it need to?

Answer: The LMXT is envisioned as providing an additional C2 node for commanders, one that is mobile, secure, and resilient. This provides reassurance to the commander and redundancy to other potentially vulnerable systems. As for refueling, the LMXT will use the same technology as the MRTT, which has proven to be capable of refueling any aircraft with a standard Universal Aerial Refueling System Slipway Installation (UARSSI) or probe-and-drogue-type receiver. In fact, the JADC2 suite and offload capability of the LMXT may make it an ideal candidate to provide C2 of multiple UASs in support of a combatant commander.

This capability to act as a “mothership” for UAS is bolstered by LMXT’s planned automatic air-to-air refueling (A3R), which provides an important technological backbone for building systems to efficiently refuel constellations of UAS. Coupling A3R and on-board C2 opens a host of possibilities for UAS employment to accelerate the combat decision cycle and gain an operational advantage.

Q5: What are a few of some of the lesser-known air platforms LMXT could support in the air in terms of drones or surveillance planes or other fixed-wing combat aircraft? Is it built to accommodate the kind of adjustable technical standards such that it can add new platforms as they arrive?

Answer: The LMXT is a very capable air refueling tanker and should be able to refuel any aircraft with standard equipment (UARSSI or probe). The LMXT has been designed with an eye towards future capabilities, too. While air refueling must adhere to strict technical standards and guidelines, there is room for other mission growth on the LMXT to accommodate advances in technology that are not currently ready for installation on the aircraft. The LMXT is designed to meet today’s national security interests as well as evolve to support future requirements.

Q6: From a pure refueling standpoint ... how is its increased efficiency achieved?

Answer: Air Force leaders and operators told Lockheed Martin their number one concern was the ability to offload significant fuel at range, so we were laser focused on providing additional fuel offload by adding 25,000 pounds of fuel in new tanks installed on the aircraft’s lower deck. In parallel, we right-sized other aspects of the aircraft to meet Air Mobility Command and TRANSCOM needs without adding excess weight. For example, the LMXT leverages a large flexible mission area—that can be modified in the future—rather than permanently installing 100s of rarely used passenger seats or adding a cargo floor and door that reduces fuel offload for a mission rarely flown by tankers. 

Q7: Are there any attributes that might contribute to LMXT's survivability in a contested environment? Will it have the flight combat radius to reach far-away aircraft?

Answer: While the U.S. Air Force has not stated the survivability requirements for the KC-Y tanker, Lockheed Martin is building it to operate in a variety of contested environments. The first survivability characteristic is enabled by its superior range and fuel carriage: standoff. It will be able to remain combat effective at great distances because of the massive amount of fuel it can efficiently carry. Second, it will need to remain informed of threats, using a combination of installed sensors and its networked integration into the JADC2 network (via the JADC2 suite). Early detection of a threat before it puts the LMXT at risk will enable it to operate safely and effectively. Finally, the LMXT could potentially leverage a range of potential active countermeasures to further enhance survivability and expand employment options.

Q8: Will there be an air-to-air command and control connectivity with LMXT and air assets at long ranges to coordinate refueling missions? How many forward operating combat aircraft could the LMXT refuel?

Answer: The LMXT will be equipped for Beyond-Line-of-Sight (BLOS) communications as well as traditional Line-of-Sight (LOS) communications. This extensive communications capability, coupled with the JADC2 suite, will offer options for the Combatant Commander to provide Command and Control of air assets and air packages at long range. Until a final decision is made on the equipment to be installed in the LMXT JADC2 suite, the limit on the number of aircraft to be controlled will be unknown, though the LMXT is not known to be inherently limiting on the total capability to coordinate and communicate with aircraft.