US Air Force considers use of stealth tankers

China’s long-range missile capability may require it to operate more survivable aerial refueling planes instead of retrofitted airliners

The evolution of China’s long-range missiles could drive a complete change in US Air Force (USAF) doctrine regarding the development of new means of aerial refueling.

Instead of retrofitted conventional aircraft such as the KC-46A Pegasus (Boeing 767), the USAF may adopt stealth-designed tankers, according to Frank Kendall, the USAF acquisitions secretary.

“The threat’s taking that freedom away from us,” Kendall said during a webinar with the US Council on Foreign Relations in December.

“Adversaries like China are able to track and shoot U.S. aircraft from increasingly long ranges, so mobility aircraft must be designed with survivability in mind,” according to Air & Space Forces Magazine.

For the USAF secretary, the “traditional route” of turning commercial models into tanker planes, as happened with the DC-10 and 767, or even designing a custom aircraft based on a military freighter, will not meet the needs of the force in the future .

US Air Force KC-46A (USAF)

Kendall said the solution to creating more survivable tanker planes, as well as air transport and electronic warfare means may lie in Blended Wing Body (BWB) aircraft, such as the new stealth bomber B-21 Raider.

The USAF even informed in October last year that it intends to test the BWB concept to develop more efficient and ecological aircraft, including tanker planes. Prototype tests with the layout are scheduled for mid-2027.

Despite the steady advance of Chinese long-range missiles, Kendall said the USAF will continue to modernize its tanker fleet with the KC-46 and that the program will not be canceled.

However, the secretary concluded that the US Air Force will have to go beyond that to the next generation of aerial refueling aircraft, including features that ensure the survivability of these aircraft in a modern warfare scenario.

Blended Wing Body concept (Airbus)


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