The future of U.S. airpower moved a major step further with the maiden flight of the first of four test variants of the Boeing KC-46 aerial refueling tanker. Based on the venerable B-767 design, the KC-46 is intended to begin replacing the fleet of obsolescing KC-135 tankers. The KC-46 is one of the Air Force’s three vital modernization programs intended to carry the service through the next three or four decades. The other key programs are the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and new Long Range bomber.
The tanker fleet is the key to this country’s ability to project military power globally and to employ operationally and strategically decisive airpower. It is the ability to refuel in flight that allowed the Air Force to conduct strikes against targets in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan from bases in the continental United States. Tankers extend the reach of other aircraft, including those operated by the other Services. Without its tanker force and all the supporting command and control, the Air Force would require access to a massive array of overseas bases close to current and potential conflict zones.
According to all reports, the first flight of the KC-46 went flawlessly, although this should not be surprising given the aircraft’s proven airframe and Pratt & Whitney engines. Still, even though this first test aircraft lacks the refueling system and military hardware that will be installed on the other three test aircraft, it has been substantially modified in order to meet the stressing demands of military operations as both a tanker and transport aircraft.
The KC-46 program should be viewed as a poster child for the Pentagon’s notion of placing greater reliance on commercial industry to develop and produce advanced military products. This new-found love of commercial companies is generally associated with smaller, start-up firms that are supposed better able to innovate. But when it comes to acquiring large, complex systems and platforms in numbers, it is the large firms, those with experience in systems integration and serial production that will be the odds on choice. The way Boeing has structured the production of the KC-46 (and the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft), relying heavily on the commercial line with a special addition line for military aircraft modifications is an example of industrial innovation.
Even though the KC-46 is still in development with the first lot of 18 combat-ready aircraft not due for delivery until 2017, the Air Force is already beginning to think about follow-on tanker programs, nominally called KC (Y) and (Z) that would complete the replacement of the KC-135s in decades to come. The reason that the Air Force has to think long-term about replacement tankers is that it can only afford to buy a small number each year, forcing it to stretch out the buy of new aircraft. It is possible that the Air Force could buy a tanker variant of Boeing’s new 787.
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