USAF Needs Stealth Tankers to Survive Chinese Missiles: Secretary

The US Air Force needs to transition to stealthy tanker and cargo aircraft amid growing Chinese missile reach, Secretary Frank Kendall recently said.

Speaking during a webinar with the Council on Foreign Relations, Kendall said the “traditional way” of converting a commercial aircraft into a tanker or cargo plane won’t satisfy the air force’s future requirements, suggesting design with “survivability in mind.”

USAF’s Future Tanker Efforts

Kendall’s remarks come months after the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit requested market information on the blended wing body aircraft concept, planning a full-scale test by 2027. 

The solicitation did not mention stealth as one of the concept’s desired features. Instead, it focused on fuel efficiency — 30 percent more than the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 — range, and offload capacity.

However, Air and Space Forces Magazine cited an Air Force Research Laboratory spokesperson as not completely ruling out the concept related to the KC-Z, which could be a stealthy aerial refueling aircraft.

Next-Gen Tanker Program

Earlier, the USAF launched the Advanced Aerial Refueling Family of Systems program, seeking significant upgrades on current tankers while looking to develop the “overall requirements for a new tanker aircraft.”

Some requirements of the aircraft are connectivity and survivability in contested environments, including “onboard electronic warfare/electronic attack and interoperability with off-board Autonomous Collaborative Platforms.”

Need for Stealth Tanker

One of the drawbacks of stealth fighter design is that it doesn’t allow extra fuel to be carried in the aircraft’s underwing tanks, restricting range.

Therefore, to keep the aircraft flying for a longer duration, a tanker with stealth features is required to refuel the plane as near to the enemy’s air space as possible, with minimum risk of being shot down.

There is also a greater chance of enemy stealth aircraft slipping past US air defense or fighter jets shooting down a non-stealth tanker than a stealth version.

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