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Without tanker planes, the added acclaimed weapons of war wouldn’t be able to ability the activity zone. 



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Key Point: Tanker planes will abide to comedy a basic abutment role during this century.

In 2018 the Air Force affairs to accompany its aboriginal eighteen KC-46A refueling tankers into service—paving the way for the replacements of its all-inclusive agile of KC-135 Stratotankers that date aback to the 1950s. The Pegasus should prove decidedly added able and survivable than its predecessor, but its final circuit of testing accept been bedeviled by a few assiduous bugs.



Sleek warbirds like the F-15 Eagle and the F/A-18 Super Hornet may allure the best attention, but these aircraft can alone ability abroad war zones and break alive aloft them for advantageous amounts of time acknowledgment to a actual band of tanker planes. In fact, the U.S. military’s air-refueling accommodation is one off its different force multipliers—while tankers in best air armament about the apple cardinal in the distinct digits to the low dozens for China and Russia, the United States operates over four hundred.



By far the best abundant tanker in U.S. account is the KC-135, an aircraft based on the admirable four-engine Boeing 707 jetliner. The blazon entered account in the backward 1950s and, admitting abundant upgrades, is assuming its age. However, the Defense Department has had a bouldered time award a replacement. In 2004, the Pentagon proposed leasing tankers acclimatized from the Boeing 767 midsize airliner. Congressional analysis over this abnormal adjustment eventually baldheaded corruption, arch to the scheme’s cancellation.

Afterwards, Boeing proposed a revised KC-767 tanker—the KC-46—but it absent in a antagonism against the Airbus A330MRTT in 2008. However, the the Government Accountability Office begin that the antagonism had been mishandled; back it was captivated a added time, Boeing’s architecture won out.

Since again the KC-46 affairs has suffered some delays and bulk overruns—taxpayers accept footed $4.82 billion so far, while Boeing has taken on $2.9 billion—but it looks like development is assuredly advancing completion.

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Tanker of the Future

The Pegasus is based on the 767-200 widebody airliner, admitting it incorporates technology from the -300F and -400ER models, and alike the agenda “glass cockpit” of the 787 Dreamliner. The new tanker can backpack up to 212,300 pounds of jet fuel—only hardly added than a KC-135. However, because the Pegasus’s two turbofans are added ammunition able than the Stratotanker’s four, it can finer administer added to agog warplanes. To put things in perspective, an F-15 Eagle can backpack about thirteen thousand pounds of centralized fuel, or three times that bulk if maxing out alien bead tanks.

The KC-46A sports no beneath than four refueling systems to ensure affinity with a avant-garde spectrum of aircraft types: two wing-mounted “probe and drogues” (they resemble continued hoses with a conical “basket” at the end), a third drogue beneath the abdomen and a added rigid, adaptable refueling boom.

Rather than analytical out at admission planes from a appropriate base on the abdomen of the plane, Pegasus bang operators sit abreast the cockpit and use fly-by-wire controls and alien 3D cameras to adviser the probes and booms to ambush the refueling probes of affable aircraft. A Pegasus can refuel up to three aircraft at once, pumping them abounding of four hundred gallons of ammunition per minute on anniversary drogue and 1,200 gallons per minute application the boom.

You can see how the Pegasus’s alien operator’s base works in this video, which characterize both bang and delving refueling.

The KC-135 and KC-10 tankers are additionally frequently assigned cargo-hauling duties—and the Pegasus is advised from the alpha to accomplish such missions abundant added efficiently. While a KC-135 can backpack eight accepted burden pallets and thirty-six cadre in the hold, a KC-46A can charge up to eighteen pallets or fifty-six built-in personnel—or up to 114 with some standing. The Pegasus is additionally advised to accomplish medical aborticide missions, with apartment and ability outlets for up to fifty-eight litters.

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The KC-46 is additionally advised to be added survivable in the accident of a aeriform acuteness battle with near-peer enemy. This is able through the accession of armor about the cockpit and ammunition tank, a large-aircraft bittersweet antitoxin (LAIRCM) arrangement to allurement heat-seeking missiles, and a Alarm Warning Receiver to alive the aggregation if they are actuality targeted by adversary weapon systems.

These additions are important because abeyant adversaries are able-bodied acquainted that refueling tankers and alarm planes anatomy the logistical sinew that keeps U.S. fighters in the air and on target. While tankers would try to abide far “backfield” of the activity in the accident of a above air war, both China and Russia are alpha to acreage baby numbers of stealth fighters that could be acclimated to bastard accomplished fighter screens to aces off abutment planes. There are additionally specialized extra-long-range air-to-air missiles such as the Russian R-37 (range: over two hundred miles) advised to abstract low-maneuverability targets while cautiously out of ability of their escorts.

Scratchy Refueling Booms, Dodgy EMP Tests, and Sparky Radios

By December 2017, the Pegasus had already undergone 2,300 hours of flight testing, and refueled abundant aircraft including an F-16, a Marine AV-8B Harrier jump jet, a C-17 Globemaster burden plane, an A-10 Thunderbolt advance jet, a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet and alike addition KC-46 tanker. However, an anniversary Department of Testing & Evaluation address reveals that assertive analytical flaws accept persisted admitting the tanker’s approaching access into service.

The best notable is that the bang refueling arrangement continues to accept accurateness problems. Sometimes, bang operators accept impacted the accepting aircraft, generally afterwards acumen it. On added occasions, the bang has continued credible for no credible acumen afterwards commutual a refueling. In either case, this has the aftereffect of abrading accepting aircraft, which is decidedly ambiguous for stealth fighters, which are coated with big-ticket radar-absorbent materials. (Note that none arise to accept activated refueling with a KC-46 so far.) This botheration may in allotment be due to abettor benightedness with the new alien examination system, admitting Boeing claims it is implementing a software fix to actual the issue.

A added affair is that while the KC-46 anesthetized a analysis to see whether it could abide aeriform afterwards arresting a six-decibel electromagnetic beating (EMP), it hasn’t been absolute whether it could still accomplish its aeriform refueling mission afterwards such a shock. The address acerbically addendum that the Pegasus’s refueling, advice and arresting systems were removed above-mentioned to the EMP test, acceptation there was no way of alive whether they would still accept remained functional. This at atomic gives the consequence that those accustomed out the analysis feared that admired accessories could be damaged.

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Nuclear detonations can actualize a cogent EMP effect, and the Pentagon wants its tankers to abide mission able in a nuclear-war scenario. In such an event, tankers ability accommodate the alone refueling accessible to key command aircraft such as Air Force One or an E-6 “Doomsday plane.”

A third affair acclaimed by some sources is that the KC-46 has a high-frequency radio that uses the plane’s metal bark apparent as an antenna. This can accomplish blaze and arcs that could accept alarming after-effects back pumping hundreds of bags of jet ammunition into addition plane. Therefore, engineers are attractive for an extra-secure arrangement for apprehension the radio apathetic during refueling operations.

Despite these problems, the new tankers are on clue to access account in the abutting few months. By October 2018, there should be eighteen operational KC-46As at McConnell and Altus Air Force Bases.

Currently, the Pentagon affairs to access 179 KC-46As for $44 billion dollars and accept them alter the oldest KC-135 airframes. This comes out to $245 actor per airframe, compared to about $212 actor for a noncombatant 767. Japan has additionally ordered three KC-46s for its aegis force, and the aircraft may be advised for account with the air armament of Canada, India and Indonesia as well.

As affairs for a added avant-garde KC-Y tanker accept been shelved, there could be added orders for added Pegasuses as added KC-135s age out in advancing decades. If this comes to pass, the new tankers may abide alive through the end of the twenty-first century.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s amount in battle resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university adviser for the Peace Corps in China. He has additionally formed in education, alteration and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on aegis and aggressive history for War Is Boring. This allotment originally appeared in 2018 and is actuality republished due to reader’s interest. 

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