A KC-46A Pegasus flies away after refueling a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, over the coast of California during exercise Bamboo Eagle 24-1, Jan. 29, 2024.

A KC-46A Pegasus flies away after refueling a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, over the coast of California during exercise Bamboo Eagle 24-1, Jan. 29, 2024. U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Christian Silvera

USAF plans stealthy tankers for ‘extreme threat areas’

Next-gen aerial refueling program will be “a system,” not just one aircraft, says mobility chief.

AURORA, Colorado—Tomorrow’s aerial tanking fleet will include some stealthy aircraft with “exquisite capabilities” that can fly into “extreme threat areas,” as well as a larger group of more conventional tankers, the head of the Air Force’s mobility arm said. 

“It's not one airplane. It's a system, so it's not one-size-fits-all. I'm not looking to develop a fleet that has to handle every threat environment,” Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, told reporters Wednesday at the Air & Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium here.

Minihan also said tomorrow’s tankers and airlifters will handle more than refueling and cargo missions. Open architecture, autonomy, and battle management capabilities are among the things he wants on his large mobility aircraft.

“We've got an enormous amount of real estate on these airplanes to do connectivity and serve a greater cause,” the general said.

And, he added, the service needs to field all this “without bankrupting the Air Force.” 

Service leaders have started fleshing out ideas for future aerial refueling and cargo fleets. The Next-Generation Aerial Refueling System, or NGAS, will replace the Boeing KC-46 and KC-135 tankers, while the Next-Generation Airlift program, or NGAL, will replace the  Lockheed C-130 and Boeing C-17. 

Last year, the Air Force said it would likely shrink its next planned purchase of tanker aircraft and try to field NGAS faster. 

As the service awaits NGAS, which is to arrive in the middle of the next decade, AMC is still working out kinks with its KC-46 tankers. A new version of its Remote Vision System, which allows an operator to see the refueling boom through a video feed, is to arrive in October 2025.

Minihan said that while there are still deficiencies with the aircraft, the current RVS system has been “wonderfully successful” and has proved itself in conflict zones. The tanker was on the operational line “instantly” after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has also been supporting the current crisis in the Middle East, he said.

“We are showing through operational success that our crews can handle it and they will be even better when the new [RVS] comes out,” he said. 

 Minihan drew the spotlight last year when he instructed AMC commanders to prepare for “the China fight” that he predicted by 2025 After the memo drew criticism, Pentagon officials distanced themselves from its remarks, but Minihan has since defended his memo and said that it was intended to create a sense of urgency for his troops. 

If war with China broke out tomorrow, Minihan said, AMC has enough refueling capability to handle conflict. But he added that he “will never be satisfied” and stressed that his troops are operating with old platforms. 

“The reality is now we talk about fifth- and sixth-generation fighters and bombers, and I am on Generation 2.5 in lift and tank. I'm almost four generations behind,” he said. 

Minihan’s February 2023 memo also directed his command to figure out the “conceptual means” to deliver a hundred drones from a single aircraft—a concept the general said they will be able to demonstrate this summer. 

This idea has “ignited the ingenuity of America's industry” and companies are already getting after the concept, but AMC doesn’t have an “operational example” of what this might look like yet, he added. 

The memo originally pitched the command’s KC-135 units to launch drones, but Minihan said they’re going to test the concept on an airlift platform first in July or August. 

“It might not be on a [KC]-135 but it'll be on a platform that's significant,” he said.