Very few operations and procedures in the military feel as cool and as futuristic as aerial refueling. The concept of a massive Stratotanker deploying a boom that refuels a fighter jet or other aircraft in midair still seems like science fiction – even if it’s been happening for more than half a century.
And that’s one of the problems facing today’s U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) – the advanced age of the aircraft most commonly used for refueling fighters and bombers in flight, the KC-135 Stratotanker.
Originally developed by Boeing in the 1950s based on their 707 civilian aircraft, the KC-135 Stratotanker has been retrofitted and upgraded over time with new engines and avionics to meet modern requirements. However, the DoD is facing a new reality in the air domain, and the KC-135 may no longer have the capabilities necessary to operate effectively in modern air combat.
Preparing to face near-peer adversaries is now the main focus and priority of Air Mobility Command (AMC) – and it’s widely understood that the modern connected battlespace that aircraft and aviators will be operating in will be highly contested.
“We cannot predict the future of what kind of environment we’re going to fight in, for one, but I fully expect it’ll be much more contested…” — Gen. Charles Brown
This sentiment has been echoed by many senior leaders across the DoD, including Gen. Charles Brown, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told attendees at the Air and Space Forces Association Symposium in March, “We cannot predict the future of what kind of environment we’re going to fight in, for one, but I fully expect it’ll be much more contested…”
Knowing this new, more contested reality that refueling aircraft will face, it’s imperative that the next generation of refueling aircraft be more efficient and survivable. It’s also essential that this next-generation aircraft meet MOSA requirements – utilizing open architectures and standards that will make maintenance and the addition of new capabilities and functionality easier well into the future.
As Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, recently told National Defense Magazine, “We have to have an approach that allows us to address those threats and still refuel the joint force and allow it to engage in all of the critical operations that are required for high-intensity conflict.”
This resulted in the original plans for the KC-135’s replacement being scrapped, and the DoD going back to the drawing board to create a more capable refueling aircraft. Unfortunately, that means the KC-135 aircraft will need to continue functioning and operating for at least another decade – possibly more.
Teaching an old dog new tricks
There is a very good chance that the spiritual successor to the KC-135 – the Next-Generation Air-Refueling System (NGAS) – will not be developed and delivered in large numbers until the late 2030s. But the DoD simply can’t go without an aerial refueling capability for more than a decade – especially considering some of the signs of hostility and provocation that we’ve witnessed recently from our largest adversaries.
And, while the KC-135 should be the focus now, all of AMC should move toward open systems to ensure all mobility aircraft can benefit from new capabilities when flying similar missions.
To help bridge the gap, the DoD is weighing another retrofitting and upgrade for the KC-135 that will give it modern avionics, displays, and other instruments that are widely utilized in modern aircraft. This can help replace any existing parts and components currently considered obsolete in the KC-135.
However, a retrofit and upgrade in avionics should do more than simply replace old solutions that are either no longer technically acceptable or maintainable. It should provide the DoD with an opportunity to integrate new open systems and commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions that leverage best-of-breed technologies and can be easily swapped out should they no longer be supported or widely available.
It can also provide an opportunity to bring new capabilities to the KC-135, such as new sources of data and information for the pilots so that they’re more situationally aware and can make better, more informed decisions. And, while the KC-135 should be the focus now, all of AMC should move toward open systems to ensure all mobility aircraft can benefit from new capabilities when flying similar missions.
The upgrade of the avionics of the KC-135 should not be a lateral move – just replacing obsolete equipment with modern, more maintainable alternatives designed to give the same capability to the pilots. It should be considered an opportunity for teaching this “old dog” some “new tricks” – or giving new capability and functionality to an older aircraft that will continue to play a vital role for another decade or more until its successor is ready.
But what should the DoD consider when weighing alternatives for the new avionics solutions that they will integrate into the KC-135 in the future?
Open and easy
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of this project because the KC-135 avionics refresh is temporary – a solution that effectively serves as a bridge until the new aerial refueling aircraft is delivered and enters into service. But this project will ensure the availability of a mission-critical capability for another decade and a half. If done correctly, it could also have long-reaching implications that impact operations well into the future.
Here are four considerations that the DoD should keep in mind when weighing options for the KC-135 avionics refresh:
1) Deliver what’s important
As we’ve established, the environments in which all aircraft will need to operate in the future will be contested. And the best way the DoD can prepare their pilots for these contested environments is to give them convenient access to the most mission-critical data. And there’s a very good reason why – access to real-time intelligence and improved situational awareness are quite possibly the single largest tactical edge available to pilots today.
“Today, the true tactical advantage comes from having the best information,” said John Rogers, a Director at Collins Aerospace and a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Having superior information “enhances how quickly and accurately you can make decisions…”
Any solution that the DoD chooses for the KC-135 should be capable of interoperating with the real-time information systems utilized across the Air Force today – giving KC-135 pilots the information they need to conduct their missions safely and effectively in even the most contested environments.
2) Think open
There is a reason why open systems are such a popular topic in the military today. Getting locked into proprietary technologies and solutions from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) has drastically increased the cost of the systems the military integrates into its aircraft. It’s also made the maintenance, repair, and replacement of parts expensive, and incredibly difficult as the aircraft ages.
If a system utilizes a purpose-built display or another proprietary component, the OEM can charge the military. And, as time passes and that part approaches the end of life, there is a good chance that it’s either no longer being manufactured, or costs a lot of money to manufacture.
For this reason, the DoD should be exploring solutions that utilize open systems and COTS components wherever possible. This can make maintenance and repair much less costly, and save the military a tremendous amount of money over the remaining years of the KC-135’s life.
Take displays as an example. If the system utilizes COTS displays with open systems architecture and those displays fail, they could be replaced with any other COTS display that meets requirements and specifications. This makes repair much easier, and far less expensive.
3) A blueprint for the future
Yes, the act of retrofitting and upgrading the KC-135 is a stopgap – it’s a bridge project designed to get the DoD to the NGAS that will replace the KC-135 in a decade’s time. However, this solution doesn’t have to be retired with the KC-135 when the NGAS is ready.
If the new console is built on open standards and with COTS components, its life can extend well beyond the life of the KC-135. It can also be easily upgraded and improved. This makes it a perfect candidate for integration into the NGAS as well as all of the other AMC aircraft.
There are several reasons why the new solution for the KC-135 should be considered for inclusion in the NGAS, but many involve training, efficiency, maintenance, and cost. By leveraging the same avionics solution in both aircraft, the learning curve for pilots training on the NGAS will be much easier.
Using the same solution in both aircraft eliminates the need for two separate systems, reducing the complexity of maintenance and repair. Also, disparate parts and components can be purchased in larger quantities because they can be used across airframes. This increases efficiency and lowers costs considerably across the lifespans of both aircraft.
Now, imagine if a similar open system was also part of all AMC aircraft enabling an upgrade in a KC-135 to quickly be fielded in a C-17.
4) Deep knowledge and understanding
Finally, any solution chosen for the KC-135 should be from a provider that understands the aircraft, its cockpit, and its existing disparate systems.
By leveraging a provider that understands the aircraft and its flight-critical systems, the DoD can ensure that the new solution interoperates with existing systems. They can also ensure that any new updates or future capabilities can be added seamlessly without compromising the essential flight systems and the aircraft’s safety.
The KC-135 might seem advanced and futuristic – capable of literally refueling a fighter jet or bomber in midair. But this is an aircraft that has been a part of the enduring fleet for more than five decades. The KC-135 clearly needs a modern replacement, but that is still more than a decade in the future.
Retrofitting and upgrading the avionics of the KC-135 is not just a good idea, it’s essential if the military wants to have aerial refueling capabilities until the NGAS is delivered. Choosing a solution that is built on open standards, integrates with real-time information systems to deliver essential information to pilots, and can be leveraged in the NGAS – or other future aircraft – can ensure that the DoD gets a solid return on its investment in the KC-135.