MAKICHUK: Skunk Works reveals stealthy tanker concept

Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works released a rendering of a possible stealth tanker of the future.
Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works released a rendering of a possible stealth tanker of the future.Skunk Works

When the US Navy decided to replace it's very capable F-14 Tomcat, with F-18s and then VTOL F-35Bs, they gave up a very valuable advantage.

The Tomcat had an operational range of 800 nautical miles, the replacements, only 500 nautical miles.

Not only that, but they also gave up the Tomcat's superior speed and missile capabilities — all vital countermeasure to long-range anti-ship threats, enhancing the survivability of U.S. carriers.

Thus the crucial importance of the Next-Generation Air Refueling System program (NGAS,) also known as KC-Z, which aims to replace KC-46 and KC-135 tankers in the 2030s. 

Made more important, by the US military's pivot, to the Indo-Pacific — with thousands of miles of blue ocean presenting a challenge to military planners.

While the US is working hard to establish strong allies in the region to contain China's recent aggressiveness, it must also have the tools to fight a war in the Pacific, should China attack Taiwan — something China's leader Xi Jinping is vowing to do.

Case in point, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works this week released a rendering of a notional stealth tanker, one that would operate closer to the frontlines to better support fighters.

First published by Aviation Week, the concept appears to be based on a rather large lambda wing with canted twin tails.

The engines, possibly two, are buried in the fuselage, with the air inlets under the wing’s root (also called “armpit” inlets) and possibly flat nozzles in the rear.

According to, while the design in the rendering is entirely notional, it is interesting to note that the concept of low observability is also making its way into the high value air assets.

The downside to this, is that stealth aircraft are very expensive to produce and repair, thanks to its complicated and highly toxic stealth coatings.

The KC-46 Pegasus tanker is being developed by Boeing from its 767 airliner.
The KC-46 Pegasus tanker is being developed by Boeing from its 767 airliner. Boeing

Last year, the U.S. Air Force released a request for information for a new tanker capable of surviving in contested airspace, as it seeks innovative solutions in all size and performance classes that address the stressing mission requirements. 

The concepts put forward can have novel technologies or operational concepts, but the Air Force said all the risk needs to be ironed out to a Technology Readiness Level of 6 — meaning a representative model or prototype system has been tested in a relevant environment — before 2032.  

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, speaking on a Council on Foreign Relations webinar early this year, said the threat posed by China is driving the Air Force away from traditional tankers, wherein a commercial aircraft is adapted into a mobility aircraft.

“The threat’s taking that freedom away from us,” he said, adding that with new cargo and tanker aircraft designs, USAF has to put “a high premium on survivability.”

Chinese and other adversary aircraft and missiles can track tankers and shoot them from long range, compelling the Air Force to move toward survivable concepts, he said.

The new tanker will have to “move beyond” traditional concepts and “survive in an environment the current fleet hasn’t had to work [in].”

NGAS is intended to be the third of three increments to the Air Force tanker recapitalization plan, following increment 1 (represented by the KC-46 program) and increment 2 (known as KC-Y or “bridge tanker”), The reported.

The last type, possibly KC-Z, would operate in the same area of operations of fighter jets for high-end missions, so it needs to be small and survivable.

Because of this, it needs to have more self-protection and advanced networking than the current types, addressing threats that are posed by potential adversaries to high-value aircraft such as tankers while still being able to perform its air refueling mission.

“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 earlier this year.

The F-14 Tomxat was one tough and capable fighter jet.
The F-14 Tomxat was one tough and capable fighter jet.US Navy photo

In addition to refueling, these aircraft might do much more, said Gen. Minihan.

In fact, he listed open architecture, autonomy, and battle management capabilities among the things that could be included on the new aircraft.

Potential offerors also have to state what kinds of engines they would put on their aircraft and what kind of fuel savings they can achieve versus present-day tankers.

Some of these capabilities might find their way on operational KC-46s even before NGAS enters service.

The KC-46 Pegasus Stratotanker is being developed by Boeing from its 767 jet airliner.

The program has been beset by delays, including production line problems that regularly stalled deliveries, and an underperforming vision system. It is years behind schedule and expected to come in October 2025.

As for the new tankers, funding will play a big role in the plans as the Air Force is already working on ultra-pricey programs such as the B-21 Raider.

In short, the new tankers of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) need to be fielded “without bankrupting the Air Force,” said Gen. Minihan.

The cost of one B-21 Raider is estimated to come in just under US $800 million in today's dollars, thus the need for affordable tanker solutions.

The USN may one day regret it turned down the proposal to build the F-14 Super Tomcat. A fighter with an 800 nautical mile range would still pose a major threat in a Pacific war.

Made famous by Tom Cruise’s legendary 1986 film, Top Gun, the F-14 in Super Tomcat form might have made life much easier for American flat tops. 

According to National Interest, Tomcats could not only engage in longer-range missions than their F/A-18 successor, but the F-14 was made-to-order for rebuffing the anti-ship capabilities of the Soviet era Tu-16 and Tu-22M long-range maritime strike bombers. 

These Soviet planes were armed with anti-ship missiles and could wreak havoc on US aircraft carriers, much as China’s A2/AD rocket forces will wreak on US carriers if given the chance.

A2/AD being an Air/Maritime missile-based defensive system designed to deny the military advantages of superior enemy forces.

Be that as it may, the Tomcat is not making a comeback, and the US will require an expensive stealth tanker to get the job done, should war break out in the Pacific, or anywhere else.

It is interesting to note, that China's Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon fifth-generation fighter jet, can reach a speed of Mach 2.25, has a combat range of 1,100 nautical miles (twice that of the F-35) and a service ceiling of 66,000 ft.

All very impressive stats, and China reportedly has 80 of them, possibly more, in service today.

— with files from, The National Interest, Air & Space Forces Magazine

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