Tanker Revolution

KC-Z, the third and last portion of Air Force tanker recapitalization decades from now, “must be a revolution,” and not just an evolution in aerial refueling technology, and must embrace outside-of-the-box ideas, said Gen. Darren McDew, head of Air Mobility Command. KC-Z will feature “things that don’t exist today that we have got to start dreaming,” McDew told reporters at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 12. This future tanker platform “needs to be autonomous or semi-autonomous. It must be dual-role, but maybe those roles aren’t cargo and tanker; maybe it’s tanker and [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance]. It could be smaller, lighter, more agile, but it has to be persistent with a great [fuel] offload capability,” he said. The Air Force is in the throes of the KC-X program, the first part of the tanker recap, to replace its oldest KC-135 tankers with 179 Boeing-built KC-46As by 2028. The second portion, KC-Y, will follow to continue replacing KC-135s. The KC-Y aircraft “could be an evolution of the KC-46,” perhaps a “KC-46B” model, or it may end up being another aircraft type, said McDew. “But it probably won’t be autonomous or semi-autonomous,” and it will likely incorporate technology that exists today, but just hasn’t been part of a tanker before, he said. Thereafter will come KC-Z. (See also What Comes After Z)