USAF Building “Sixth Generation” Tanker

The Air Force’s KC-46A program is unlike any other aerial refueling aircraft in the US inventory and will be a highly capable air asset when deployed in the fleet, the program’s manager told a McAleese Associates/Credit Suisse conference in Washington, D.C., March 17. From its boom operations to integrated data systems and self-protection tools laid out in its key performance parameters, the KC-46 when operational is anticipated to be a “sixth [generation] air refueler,” said Brig. Gen. Duke Richardson, the program executive officer for tanker programs at USAF’s Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. He noted all KC-46s will have the ability to perform same sortie boom and drogue operations in a “very flexible configuration,” while only 25 KC-135s have the ability to perform same sortie operations. Five different technology labs are working on the program, assisting in the development of key capabilities such as radar warning and a new “tactical situational awareness system” to fuse different data together to take advantage of a platform that will be fully network-enabled, he added. Operators in the cockpit also will be able to do air refueling in a “lights off” scenario using innovative 3-D cameras, he noted. Flight testing of the first engineering manufacturing and development airframe is slated to begin later this spring.