The Air Force Wants a Stealthy Aerial Refueling Tanker

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  • The U.S. Air Force wants a new tanker that would feature a reduced radar signature.
  • It would be able to operate closer to the front line in an air campaign, and attract less attention from enemy forces.
  • Tankers and other support aircraft will be major targets in a future war, as adversaries will work to reduce the reach of U.S. airpower.

The U.S. Air Force of the 2040s will fly a stealthy tanker capable of refueling fighters and bombers closer to the front line than ever before. The service is seeking new industry concepts for the “Next Generation Air Refueling System,” or NGAS, a new tanker the Air Force claims will better support what it calls the “future fight.” It will likely be the first tanker designed with a reduced radar signature—and other stealth features—to covertly pass fuel to thirsty airplanes in a major conflict.

On January 31, the Air Force first released a Request for Information (RFI) on the System for Award Management (SAM) website, which is meant for companies looking to secure federal contracts. An RFI is a memo to the defense industry—in this case, aviation giants such as Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin—in which the Air Force expresses interest in a new aircraft with new capabilities. The service outlines what it wants in broad strokes, and then industry is expected to come back with concepts and ideas it thinks could fulfill those capabilities.

NGAS should incorporate “innovative industry solutions that might fulfill the most stressing and complex air refueling mission requirements of the future fight,” per the RFI document. NGAS will be required to operate in “contested scenarios”: that is, situations in which enemy fighters and surface-to-air missiles could pose a threat to the tanker. The tanker should be operational by 2040.

For decades, the Air Force has relied on 1960s-era vintage KC-135 Stratotankers, an aircraft based on the commercial Boeing 707 airliner, as well as the KC-10 Extender, based on the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10airliner. The service flies 394 KC-135s and 48 KC-10s. Both airframes are so old that the original airliners they were based on have long since been phased out of the inventories of American air carriers.

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Source: Popular Mechanics

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