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‘Lifeline’ For US Air Force Warplanes In ‘China Zone’, US To Turn Its Aerial Tankers Into Launchpad For UAVs

The United States Air Force (USAF) appears to be investigating how it could equip the KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, the cornerstone of its tanker fleet, with the capability to deploy drones.

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The Commander of Air Mobility Command (AMC), General Mike Minihan, who has made a similar pitch earlier, stated that drones launched by KC-135 motherships could serve as remote sensors and decoys, aid in force navigation, scout out new landing zones, assist in downed pilot rescues, and more.

AMC is in charge of the majority of the Air Force’s aerial refueling tankers and cargo planes. General Minihan spoke at a roundtable on the sidelines of the Air & Space Forces Association Air, Space & Cyber Conference on the KC-135 air-launched drone initiative and other projects.

Expressing hope that the idea might be translated into a practical concept, General Minihan said, “Hopefully, you know, [it will happen] during my time at AMC… [but] what it takes to get it from operational concept to program a record, probably a little more challenging.”

Elaborating more on the notational concepts that are still under development and are being diligently worked on and evolving, General Minihan shared with the media a rough sketch of what role the KC-135 would be expected to perform while acting as a mothership to the drones.

Minihan said, “A drone could come out [of the KC-135], and it could provide [positioning, navigation, and timing, or PNT] to someone who doesn’t have it. It could fly a life vest to a downed pilot or a radio to a downed pilot. You could fly down and survey the runway you’re about to land on.

“… it can provide some search mechanism for an enemy force if you want it, or you can simply fly down and go to sleep and be there available for when you want to wake it up… it can provide decoys … it can provide some sort of ELINT [electronic intelligence], some type of [intelligence] collection. … I see that those types of things [what these drones could do] are limitless.”

This isn’t the first time General Minihan has been outspoken about such an idea. Earlier this year, AMC’s first indication of deploying KC-135 tankers as launch pads for many unmanned aircraft systems came from a leaked memo that generated much interest in the concept. The document was found to be authentic.

The main message that the memo cautioned about was the impending danger of war with China and urged the entire command to take numerous precautions to better prepare for that possibility. General Minihan had earlier warned that a war could be imminent by 2025.

minihan china memo 2
A passage from General Minihan’s document from February 2023- Via Platform X/USAF

The USAF is known to be experimenting with releasing a swarm of drones from its warplanes to enhance its firepower with adversaries like China. The idea of using less expensive and ‘attritable’ platforms against well-defended enemies has found many takers within the USAF, including the highest echelons at Command levels.

EurAsian Times contacted an expert to understand why the USAF may explore using aerial tankers as a mothership.

Indian Air Force veteran and military expert Squadron Leader Vijiander K Thakur explained, “Tankers are critical but vulnerable assets. If used as a mothership for combat drones, the drones can protect them from long-range air-to-air missiles. Tankers have a lot of unutilized cargo space; they can carry many drones along with launch ramp(s).

“Tankers can extend the range of small-sized kamikaze drones, enabling them to carry out swarm attacks at great ranges. Drones launched by tankers can be employed for EW ahead of a missile or air attack. There are many advantages.”

“Tanker launch is a capability. I have listed the advantages of tanker launch capability. There are many. How the capability is used in any operation depends on operational plans. I really cannot speculate,” he observed.

“In a confrontation with China, only the capability of drones to protect the tanker from air-to-air missile attacks is relevant.”

The National Ideas Of KC-135 As A Mothership

One of the most significant roles that Minihan brought up was the PNT. This describes various tools and systems that deliver exact position and time information for different military and non-military uses. For perspective, the GPS satellite constellation is the biggest and most well-known source of PNT information.

However, the PNT stands for somewhat creating an alternative to GPS or an independent system. When discussing the need for other options to GPS for things like general navigation and weapon guidance, the US military generally brings up PNT. This is attributed to China and Russia developing and fielding GPS jamming and spoofing technologies. For future conflicts, the USAF would need a credible alternative.

Drones could complement combat search and rescue (CSAR) missions by being deployed from KC-135 aircraft. In any future high-end fight, such as one against China, the Air Force has made it clear that it anticipates CSAR to be a particularly challenging task given that the adversary would be operating its stealth jets to hinder the rescue missions.

Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker - Wikipedia
Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker – Wikipedia

However, despite the odds, it may be possible to help those people hold out until more powerful assistance arrives if drones can deliver even tiny cargoes like life jackets, survival radios, location beacons, first aid supplies, food, and water. Because KC-135s frequently operate in more forward regions, they can get on the scene faster and support recovery operations with their endurance.

Another point made by Minihan illustrates how Air Force-wide concepts of operations, known as Agile Combat Deployment, are centered on expeditionary and distributed operations and the capacity to deploy quickly to remote or challenging places. An aerial tanker already operating at forward locations armed with several drones could be an asset.

In his final statement, Minihan discussed the possibility of using drones fired from KC-135 aircraft as sensor nodes or decoys. These could be some of the most apparent uses in a high-end conflict, especially with China, which has an elegant and sophisticated Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD)

These capabilities, as well as unmanned aircraft platforms that may be equipped with stand-in jammer suites, might aid in detecting approaching dangers or even actively defending tankers, which would be prized targets in a significant conflict. They might only offer more situational awareness.

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File Image: UTAP-22

For the same reasons, AMC has already begun testing pairing KC-135s with loyal wingman-type drones. In 2021, the aircraft was tested along with the Kratos Unmanned Tactical Aerial Platform-22 (UTAP-22), a low-cost unmanned platform. The aerial refueler fleet was upgraded with Link 16, Situational Awareness Datalink (SADL), and Secure Beyond Line of Sight communications.

However, it is currently unknown why KC-135 was picked for the drone deployment job rather than one of AMC’s multiple airlifters with a big cargo hold and ramps to drop swarms and defensive systems.

Moreover, no apertures or pylons on the aircraft can be used for this. The service would need to explore deep integration and storage, and specific strategies would be required to make this a reality. Heavy modifications would be needed.

Studies have shown time and time again how the result of a battle in the Taiwan Strait could depend on a mesh network of unmanned systems operating there. Unsurprisingly, the service is exploring the idea of pressing its most vital aerial asset into performing another very critical role – likely for optimizing resources.

However, it is intriguing given that the service has been discussing the retirement of these aircraft and is actively working on the Next-Generation Air-Refueling System or NGAS.

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