The US Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC) is exploring the possibility of launching a swarm of drones from KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft.
The move, which first emerged in a leaked memorandum earlier this year, is reportedly one of Washington’s strategies to prepare for a potential conflict with China.
According to AMC head Gen. Mike Minihan, the concept is to launch up to 100 commercial-off-the-shelf unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from the Boeing warplane.
The UAVs will act as decoys or remote sensors to support aerial combat missions.
“Still driving towards that, you know … and I think we will be successful,” he told The War Zone. “Hopefully, [it will happen] during my time at AMC… [but] what it takes to get it from operational concept to program a record, probably a little more challenging.”
Drones launched from the KC-135 could provide positioning, navigation, and timing to military assets that do not have it, Minihan said.
They could also deliver life vests or other equipment to downed pilots on the battlefield.
“You could actually fly down and survey the runway, which you’re about to land on. [They] can provide some sort of search mechanism for an enemy force,” he added.
Furthermore, the UAVs can act as communications and data-sharing relays, considering the improved jamming and spoofing capabilities of near-peer adversaries China and Russia.
Such applications will reportedly enable the tanker-launched drones to support combat search and rescue missions.
‘Ample Extra Cabin Volume’
The AMC did not disclose how it will configure the KC-135 to launch drone swarms.
However, Minihan mentioned the possibility of integrating the Common Launch Tube, an aerial launch system for munitions and small drones currently in service with the US military.
Sonobuoy launchers are also being considered to deploy up to 100 UAVs.
While the launch system is not yet finalized, Minihan assured that the KC-135 has ample extra cabin volume to accommodate launchers and multiple drones.