WASHINGTON — Boeing and its subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences on Tuesday at the Paris Air Show unveiled plans to develop new and advanced defensive capabilities for the KC-46 Pegasus and other future aerial refueling and mobility aircraft.
Boeing and Aurora’s move to strengthen the Pegasus’s defensive measures comes as the military is preparing for the possibility of a war against an advanced adversary such as China. The Air Force worries such a conflict would involve fighting in heavily contested airspace.
Top Air Force officials have said such an air war would likely involve an enemy targeting aerial tankers that would be needed to refuel fighters, bombers or other aircraft flying near the battlefield, and said its future tankers need to be able to survive such a conflict.
The Air Force’s shifting focus earlier this year prompted the service to accelerate its plans for developing a next-generation refueling tanker, and to cut in half the number of tankers it would buy as an interim step between the current purchase of 179 KC-46s and the so-called next-generation aerial refueling system, or NGAS.
The Air Force is also considering forgoing a competition for the service’s next wave of refueling tankers. Instead, the service may go straight to Boeing and buy another series of modified KC-46s to tide it over until NGAS arrives in the late 2030s.
The Air Force originally planned to buy 150 interim tankers, but is now more likely to buy about 75.
Boeing said having new defensive measures would make the Pegasus better able to survive in a high-end conflict, and the Air Force could choose to use these capabilities on multiple platforms.
Boeing also said the unspecified defensive measures could be used on next-generation refueling and mobility aircraft, suggesting they could be incorporated into Boeing’s expected pitch for NGAS.
“The KC-46A already features defensive systems that are unprecedented in a tanker,” said Justin Hatcher, Boeing’s advanced technology director for the KC-46 program. “We continue to evolve the KC-46 and other next-generation refueling and mobility platforms to further enhance mission versatility and survivability.”
A Boeing spokesperson declined to share details about the research the company is funding into tanker defensive capabilities, or how much the company will spend, citing proprietary concerns. Boeing said that as the defensive systems mature, the company will work with customers such as the Air Force to see whether to include these new capabilities on the KC-46 or other platforms, and when they would be added.
Boeing pointed to the KC-46′s existing defensive systems and countermeasures, such as protection against electromagnetic pulses, chemical or biological weapons, infrared countermeasures, radio frequency warnings, and armor on its flight deck.
Aurora, which is based in Manassas, Virginia, and has a manufacturing facility in Columbus, Mississippi, specializes in developing advanced innovative designs for aircraft. Boeing acquired Aurora in 2017.
Earlier this month, Lockheed Martin announced it had selected a General Electric Aerospace engine for its proposed LMXT strategic tanker, which it hopes to sell to the Air Force as an interim tanker.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.