The Air Force KC-Y tanker 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 Pegasus tanker arrives in sufficient numbers. The Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers are nearing the end of their service life, a situation that 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’s LMXT offering may by some estimations already be outperforming the KC-46. The LMXT is based on an Airbus Multi-role tanker A330 MRTT aircraft now flying with as many as thirteen 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, a 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 that could be easily upgraded with new software, electronics, and computer processing system.
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.”
Because it has 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 three hundred 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 Lockheed Martin F-35C fighter jet from more than one thousand 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 “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 a thousand 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 nine hundred miles, meaning an F-35C might need to launch too far away to reach inland targets, unless it was 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 significant, as a tanker aircraft can extend target seeking loiter time over hostile territory for fighter jets that 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, the LMXT could 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 Martin’s effort to engineer its commercially-derived, yet militarized platform with open standards such that it can be upgraded.
As mentioned in a National Interest article earlier this year, Lockheed Martin’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 Martin’s reference to datalinks, multi-domain operations, and onboard situational awareness seem to further substantiate the concept of how something like the KC-Y program 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.
Kris Osborn is a defense writer 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.
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