The need for more survivable tankers is becoming a pressing issue in the dawning age of anti-access and area-denial warfare. America has built the backbone of its air combat force around fuel-thirsty fighters that are addicted to tanker gas. In potential future conflicts, having existing airliner-based tankers approach within 500 or so miles of enemy targets will likely entail immense risk. Outfitting tankers with situational awareness-enhancing avionics and sensors, electronic warfare systems, and even kinetic-kill defensive systems and high-power lasers are ways to approach this problem. But shooting down incoming missiles as they approach with exotic close-in defenses or avoiding enemy threats altogether by running from them are hardly attractive solutions to this problem.
Another more robust way is to field a stealthy tanker that can move far closer to target sets with 5th generation fighters and stealthy drones in tow. Such an aircraft could also benefit from the aforementioned systems as well, including kinetic-kill interceptors, making it even more survivable. You are unlikely to find a more thorough case for fielding such an aircraft than the one we published in 2017, which you can read here. Fast forward to over a year later and now the Air Force Research Lab is showing off a model of a somewhat familiar stealthy tanker-transport design without any real explanation.
The model, which looks like a variation of Lockheed's 'Speed Agile' concept, titled "Advanced Aerial Refueling" was noticed by Aviation Week's Guy Norris in the Air Force Research Lab's area at the 2018 AIAA Aviation forum that took place in Atlanta this week. According to Guy, this model also included a flying-wing UCAV being refueled off its boom.
A year ago, another stealthy tanker-transport model was displayed by Lockheed at a similar trade show and forum. Clearly, models don't necessarily mean anything definitive, but the appearance of this model now does point to an ongoing interest in the stealth tanker concept if not some kind of program to develop one.
In a recent interview with leadership players within the USAF's tanker community, one officer alluded to a more survivable tanker capability that may be on the horizon. That entire expose will be published on Monday, but I thought this was an interesting statement that I didn't notice at the time of the interview, but will be following up on.
And of course, a stealthy tanker transport could have more applications than just pumping gas closer to enemy territory than a traditional airliner-based alternative. We have heard some chatter that the USAF and Special Operations Command may have finally joined forces to develop a stealthy tanker-transport.
Special Operations Command still relies on low-level penetration tactics to insert special operations teams deep into enemy territory, at least as far as we know. Beyond the stealthy Black Hawks used on the Bin Laden raid, which have limited range and still relied on low-level flying to accomplish their mission, along with reports of enhanced stealth helicopter designs that have followed, there is no other platform that can insert operators onto land over contested airspace.
A stealthy transport that flies at jet speeds could provide such a capability. We detail all this in our big stealth tanker article, and it's not as if the special operations community hasn't been pining for such an aircraft for decades. Rumors regarding multiple black projects aimed at obtaining such a capability have existed over the decades, including one code-named 'Senior Citizen' that was supposed to provide a stealthy, short takeoff and landing transport, at least in an experimental capacity.
Another initiative named Special Operations Forces Aircraft, or SOFTA, also was at least deeply studied in the late 1980s with Burt Rutan participating in the program. Since then, the Osprey has become operational and does provide an aircraft capable of VTOL operation and low-level penetration. But something that can provide a higher-flying and stealthy alternative that is capable of delivering larger payloads over longer ranges remains highly relevant.
But regardless of what exactly is in the works and what remains just a concept, the USAF is becoming ever more focused on their tanker vulnerability problem. And that affliction will only get worse as enemy anti-access capabilities extend their reach and as the qualitative advantage that the U.S. has overwhelmingly enjoyed continues to erode. Since the U.S. will not invest in longer-ranged tactical air power, and especially in unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs)—at least not on a grand scale—the only other option will be to harden traditional tanker's own defenses or build a tanker in such a way that can deny the enemy the ability to target and successfully engage it.
We have reached out to the Air Force Research Laboratory yesterday for comment about the model and the stealth tanker initiative as a whole and are still waiting to hear back.