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New Stealth Tanker Concept Unveiled by Lockheed Martin.

The U.S. Air Force has a crucial need for more survivable aerial refueling tankers by 2040, especially in the context of potential high-intensity conflicts, such as those in the Pacific against China. In response to this need, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works has unveiled a new rendering of a stealthy aerial refueling tanker. The rendering, published by Aviation Week on May 13, 2024, shows the tanker refueling a stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, reflecting the growing imperative for such systems.
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Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works has unveiled a rendering of a conceptual stealth tanker, comparable in size to a C-130, designed for the Next-Generation Air Refueling System (Picture source: Lockheed Martin)

The Air Force's current fleet of tankers, including the KC-46, KC-135, and KC-10, is increasingly seen as inadequate for future combat scenarios involving anti-access and area denial environments. This has led to the development of the Next Generation Air-Refueling System (NGAS), which envisions a family of systems to support future air operations. The Skunk Works concept aims to address these challenges by offering a stealthy design capable of operating in contested environments.

The Skunk Works rendering reveals a tanker with a broad planform and large clipped wings that feature lambda-wing attributes. The narrow forward fuselage and small outwardly canted vertical tails suggest a design focused on minimizing radar signature. The aircraft's broad wings are designed to contain a significant amount of fuel, essential for its refueling mission. Stealth features, such as a chine-line wrapping around the forward part of the aircraft and a centrally mounted aerial refueling boom, enhance its low observable characteristics.

This new tanker concept differs from previous designs, such as the advanced tanker/cargo aircraft concepts with blended wing bodies seen in earlier Lockheed Martin proposals. The design also reflects the evolving refueling strategy of the Air Force, moving from traditional tankers to more survivable options. The Skunk Works tanker could potentially fulfill multiple roles, including acting as an electronic warfare and networking platform or even launching its own weapons and drones.

The Air Force's plan for future tankers includes survivable options for high-threat environments and more traditional tankers for permissive environments. General Mike Minihan, head of the Air Mobility Command (AMC), emphasized the need for a balanced fleet capable of operating in various threat levels without excessive costs. The NGAS is expected to integrate these diverse capabilities, ensuring that the Air Force can maintain the effectiveness of its tactical air force in future conflicts.

Budget uncertainties and new defense spending caps add complexity to the Air Force's plans. While the service has requested funds for the initial analysis and review of NGAS requirements, securing the necessary development and procurement funds will require a broader commitment beyond the Air Force. This uncertainty highlights the challenges in transitioning to a new generation of tankers.

The introduction of stealth tankers is part of a broader effort to adapt to changing threat environments. The Air Force's exploration of tanker concepts based on stealth bombers, such as the B-2 Spirit and B-21 Raider, indicates a willingness to innovate in response to evolving needs. As the Air Force refines its tanker requirements, the Skunk Works concept represents a significant step toward achieving the goal of a more survivable and versatile aerial refueling fleet.

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