KC-46 Expands Its Austere Airfield Capabilities, Could Include Roadways In Future

With the help of Airfield Marking Patterns, the tanker’s potential to move fuel and supplies to austere locations is increasing.

byEmma Helfrich|
KC-46 Airfield Marking Pattern
(U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Amy Picard)


The U.S. Air Force is interested in giving KC-46A Pegasus tankers more flexible options for where it can takeoff and land, which could possibly include roadways. Helping the service explore this goal is the Airfield Marking Pattern (AMP), a collection of landing zone marking components that comes in four designations, each of which could help increase the options available for transport aircraft, like the KC-46, in terms of operating from austere runways and landing sites, both day and night.

A recent Air Force announcement explains that pilots and aircrew from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas will undergo KC-46A training using the AMP-3 specifically. AMP-1, AMP-2, and AMP-4 make up the rest of the family of designations, but AMP-3 is the focus of the 22nd’s exercises. Capt. Adam Solomon, the 22nd Operations Support Squadron’s airfield operations flight commander, said in the press release that the training will make McConnell the first tanker base to utilize the AMP-3 system with the KC-46.

Senior Airman Genavieve Rohling, 22nd Operations Support Squadron, airfield management shift lead, places a Phantom ALZ-15 portable landing zone light on the runway in preparation for AMP-3 system training. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Goodly

“This type of training helps airfield management, and the pilots of the KC-46, to prepare for a near-peer fight with whoever that might be,” Solomon said. “There may be a time when crews must land in unconventional areas, on unmarked runways, and this type of training ensures that our crew will be prepared for that type of scenario.”

All four AMP designations are comprised of various kinds of airfield marking equipment tailored to the intended landing zone operation, be it marker panels, omnidirectional visible lighting systems, or strobe lights, for example. When the overall system comes together, it becomes a highly-portable and rapidly-deployable AMP that serves essentially as a visual aid system that can be used to guide pilots during takeoff and landing. 

A Phantom ALZ-15 portable landing zone light designed by Phantom Products, Inc. These lights are small, lightweight, and can be quickly deployed as part of an AMP system to mark temporary landing zones for aircraft. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Goodly

The ideal AMP for the operation is selected by taking many environmental factors into account. This process is often supported by Combat Controllers who specialize in surveying potential landing zones and directing traffic into and out of them. Such factors can include the region of the world that the aircraft involved is operating in, the geography and infrastructure present, the time of day, as well as the mission needs of the combatant commander. Each AMP also requires that the landing zone permit a runway overrun and underrun of 300 feet. 

It’s worth noting that in the Air Force instruction documents referred to for this article, the term ‘tactical airlift’ mission or requirement is frequently used when defining each AMP designation. Col. Nate Vogel, 22nd Air Refueling Wing commander, told The War Zone that ‘tactical airlift’ previously referred to C-130 or C-17 aircraft, not KC-46As.

“We’re changing that,” Vogel said.

A KC-46A Pegasus lands at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, June 12, 2020. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jacob B. Derry

AMP-1 is normally used to support day or night tactical airlift missions in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC). VMCs are weather conditions where visual flight rules apply, which are expressed in terms of visibility, ceiling height, and aircraft clearance from clouds along the path of flight.

“When using the AMP-1 pattern, aircrew mission planners are authorized to reduce or eliminate panel markings for well-defined runways during day VMC operations. As a minimum, the touchdown zone must be marked,” read the Air Force instruction document.

A screenshot of a diagram from the Air Force instruction document showing an AMP-1 daytime approach, with 'panels' being the landing zone markings. Credit: U.S. Air Force

When VMC criteria do not exist, AMP-1 can also be used in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), which occur when weather conditions require pilots to fly primarily by referring to their instruments. The Air Force instruction document explains that AMP-1 instrument approaches “for contingency landing zones require special configuration. This configuration is used to support day or night tactical airlift missions during times of reduced visibility.”

A screenshot of a diagram from the Air Force instruction document showing an AMP-1 nighttime/instrument approach. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The AMP-2 system is largely similar to AMP-1 in that it can support day or night tactical airlift requirements. However, the second designation requires fewer panels or lights than the first. The Air Force documents also note that both “overt or covert lighting” can be used for AMP-2.

An example of covert lighting is the Phantom ALZ-15 pictured at the top of this article, which can be used to mark runways and taxiways as well as create landing zones. The lights can be set to different flashing patterns and emit a near-infrared wavelength, making them compatible with night vision devices (NVDs). Pilots and airfield personnel wearing NVDs can easily see the ALZ-15s, but they aren't visible to the naked eye.

A screenshot of a diagram from the Air Force instruction document showing an AMP-2 nighttime approach when the field marker lights, like ALZ-15s, can be overt or covert. Credit: U.S. Air Force

AMP-3, which was used by the 22nd Air Refueling Wing for its KC-46A training, cuts down on the number of lights and panels needed to support the day or night tactical airlift requirements even further. Both overt and covert lighting can be used for this designation, as well. 

The Air Force documents explain that when an AMP-3 system is employed, the phrase ‘the Box and One’ is used to refer to the designated area where the pilot can land and where exactly the end of the usable runway is. The standard box length should be 500 feet, but it could reach 1000 feet depending on the tactical situation. 

A screenshot of a diagram from the Air Force instruction document showing an AMP-3 daytime approach, with 'panels' being the landing zone markings. Credit: U.S. Air Force

“AMP-3 is important because it gives flexible options for landing when traditional runways are unavailable,” said Maj. Steven Strickland, 22nd Operations Support Squadron chief of wing tactics, in the press release. “We are working with airfield management to set up our AMP-3 system on runway 01R/19L to conduct both day and night training.”

The options for landing that AMP-3 could give the KC-46A may be so flexible, in fact, that civilian roadways could eventually be on the table. When asked by The War Zone if this was a possibility, Vogel indeed confirmed that roadways “highlight a future possible use of the KC-46 and the AMP-3 system.”

A screenshot of a diagram from the Air Force instruction document showing an AMP-3 nighttime approach. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The last of the designations is the AMP-4. These require no markings at all and are only used for “appropriate special operations,” according to a U.S. Army technical manual from 2016. Any further details about this designation are limited, and no diagrams were provided in the Air Force documents. Landing at highly unprepared locales is a dangerous affair, but the Air Force has worked to give aircrews better confidence in doing so, including using targeting pods to assist in these operations, which you can read more about here.

Regardless, each of the four AMP systems are generally intended to achieve a level of operational flexibility that lines up with the goals outlined under the Air Force’s overarching Agile Combat Employment (ACE) initiative. ACE seeks to ensure that U.S. forces will have the ability to rapidly deploy to and from contested, degraded, or austere locales in theater, namely the Indo-Pacific, without sacrificing combat capability, which is especially difficult for a big tanker derived from a commercial airplane, like the KC-46, to achieve.

A KC-46A assigned to McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, lands in an austere environment during exercise Cope North 22 on Northwest Field, Guam, February 4, 2022. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Amy Picard

“AMP 1-4 is less about the runway being supported and more about the support that is available, and the environment being used,” John Van Winkle, chief of public affairs for the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base told The War Zone. “A completely permissive environment with lots of resources could use AMP-1 for either instrument or VMC conditions. From there you can decrease either the support or the environment until you get to AMP-4 which is no support and/or a potentially hostile environment.”

Exploring such options for the KC-46 specifically is something that the Air Force is increasingly doing. One such tanker that was also from McConnell Air Force Base was involved in an ACE-related exercise just over a year ago, which can be read about in detail here. In this instance, the tanker deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam where its fuel was then rapidly funneled into two different refueling vehicles via dual hoses. The fuel could then be offloaded into other deployed aircraft.

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Being able to bring KC-46s and other large cargo and tanker aircraft into austere airstrips for forward basing in contested areas, or to provide fuel for tactical aircraft and other forces operating from these locales, could be highly beneficial. In fact, this concept of operations is becoming a core tenet in the Pentagon’s playbook for a potential fight against China in the Pacific. The same can be said for being able to rapidly set up alternative runway areas at or near established bases that have had their primary runways put out of service due to enemy attacks. 

This is clearly an area that the Air Force is prioritizing for the KC-46 as both the tanker itself and the geopolitical climate in the Pacific evolve. The AMP may not get a lot of attention, but it will be pivotal in adding a level of ACE capability not just to Pegasus operations, but also for its cargo and fuel-hauling stablemates. 

Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com