WASHINGTON — The Air Force could begin to lay out its vision for a future aerial refueling tanker, previously known as KC-Z, as early as next year, the head of Air Mobility Command said Monday.

The service intends to conduct an analysis of alternatives for an advanced aerial refueling aircraft in fiscal year 2022, AMC commander Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost said during a Defense Writers Group meeting with reporters. That study will help the Air Force determine precisely which capabilities a future tanker will need to to operate in more heavily contested battlefields against the threats posed by nations such as Russia and China.

“We’re thinking about the near peer [competition], and what we need for a near peer [competition],” she said.

Key to that discussion is figuring out how much of the aerial refueling process can be performed without a human pilot or boom operator onboard the plane to fly it or give other aircraft gas.

“Is going to be autonomous? Is it going to be pilot on the loop [or] pilot in the loop capability?” asked Van Ovost. “Is it going to be small? Is it going to be large? What kind of [self protection] is it going to have? What kind of electromagnetic spectrum capabilities is it going to have to both protect itself and enhance the lethality of the Joint Force while it’s out there?”

In April, Will Roper, then the Air Force’s top acquisition official, told reporters that an agreement with Boeing for a new and improved KC-46 vision system could pave the way for autonomous aerial refueling. The addition of 4K high-definition cameras, modern processors and LiDAR (light detecting and ranging) sensors would help the new system accumulate much of the data necessary for a computer to correctly calculate all the variables that need to be solved for safe aerial refueling.

“All you have to do is take that data that tells the world inside the jet the reality of geometries between the airplane and the boom outside the jet. Once you have that, you simply need to translate it into algorithms that allow the tanker to tank itself,” Roper said then.

The Air Force is not the only service interested in automated aerial refueling. The Navy is flight testing the MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueling drone — which, like the Air Force’s new KC-46 tanker, is built by Boeing. The Navy eventually hopes to operate the MQ-25 onboard aircraft carriers, where it will be used to extend the range of fighter jets like the F-35C and F/A-18EF Super Hornet.

Van Ovost acknowledged the Air Force is still years away from being able to hold a competition for the platform formerly known as KC-Z. After the Air Force completes its procurement of 179 KC-46s — which, if its current buy rate holds, will occur around the 2027 timeframe — the service will buy a non-developmental “bridge tanker,” she said.

That effort, which replaces the KC-Y program, will likely be a battle between Boeing and an Airbus-Lockheed Martin team, which joined forces in 2018 to market Airbus’ A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport to the U.S. Air Force. Both teams are expected to offer upgraded versions of their current aerial refueling aircraft.

Van Ovost did not say when that competition will begin.

Along with tackling questions about its future tanker, the Air Force is also set to begin a business case analysis whether to pursue contracted aerial refueling to support U.S. military training and test activities across the contiguous United States.

After holding a December 2019 industry day with interested vendors, Air Mobility Command conducted a study into the feasibility and affordability of commercial air refueling services and submitted a proposal to Air Force leadership.

However, Air Force leaders want more information before making a final decision, and have asked for a comprehensive business case analysis that would finalize a requirement for all of the services’ needs, Van Ovost said. The study would come up with options for various contracting models — which could include tankers that are leased to the government or contractor-owned and operated — as well as hammer out details on Federal Aviation Administration certification requirements.

“We’re working with headquarters Air Force to finalize the parameters for the study, and then likely will be contracting out that study,” Van Ovost said. “And for expectation’s sake, it does take a while. These kinds of business case analysis we have seen take 18 months, so we are going to put pen to paper and take a very close look at it.”

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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