KC-135 Tankers Being Eyed For Drone Launcher Role

The U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command is still exploring a concept that could see KC-135 aerial refueling tankers gain the ability to launch up to 100 commercial-of-the-shelf drones. The command’s top officer says that drones launched by KC-135 motherships could act as decoys and remote sensors, help forces navigate to their destinations, scout out new places to land, aid in the rescue of downed pilots, and more.

The head of Air Mobility Command (AMC), Gen. Mike Minihan, provided an update on the KC-135 air-launched drone effort and other projects to The War Zone and other outlets at a roundtable on the sidelines of this year’s Air & Space Forces Association Air, Space & Cyber Conference. This annual gathering kicked off today.

A US Air Force KC-135 tanker. USAF

That AMC was looking into using KC-135 tankers as launch platforms for large numbers of uncrewed aerial systems first emerged in a leaked memo from Gen. Minihan earlier this year. That missive was centered on a warning about the looming prospect of a conflict with China and admonished the entire command to take a host of steps to better prepare itself for that possibility.

USAF via Twitter

“Still driving towards that, you know, and, and I think we will be successful,” Minihan said today about the idea of being able to launch dozens of drones from KC-135s. “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.”

Minihan elaborated more on the still-evolving notional operational concepts:

“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 down a downed pilot or a radio to a downed pilot. You could actually fly down and survey the runway, which you’re about to land on. … it can provide some sort of 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.”

That Minihan mentioned PNT first in this discussion is notable. This refers to a mixture of systems and capabilities that provide accurate and precise location and time data for a slew of military and non-military applications. The largest and best-known source of PNT data is the GPS satellite constellation.

The U.S. military regularly talks about PNT in the context of the need for alternatives to GPS for things like general navigation and weapon guidance. GPS jamming and spoofing are real threats now and are capabilities that near-peer adversaries like China and Russia have been particularly active in developing and fielding. Those two countries also have various anti-satellite weapon capabilities and continue to work to expand those arsenals. All of this has major ramifications for future U.S. operations.

Using a distributed ‘mesh network’ that includes large numbers of drones acting as communications and data-sharing relays has long been one suggestion for helping to manage The U.S. military regularly talks about PNT in the context of the need for alternatives to GPS for things like general navigation and weapon guidance. GPS jamming and spoofing are real threats now and are capabilities that near-peer adversaries like China and Russia have been particularly active in developing and fielding, which has major ramifications for future U.S. operations. AMC has also been testing a system that makes use of magnetic compasses as a way to navigate in future GPS-denied environments.

The idea of having KC-135-launched drones help support combat search and rescue (CSAR) missions is also notable. The Air Force has made clear that it expects CSAR will be a particularly difficult mission set in any future high-end conflict, such as one against China, where stealthy aircraft in particular will, by definition, often be operating deep in very high-threat areas.

Especially in a maritime environment, the service’s own traditional land-based CSAR assets, like its new HH-60W Jolly Green II combat rescue helicopters, may be hard to employ at all. In turn, it will likely have to rely more on other branches, especially the U.S. Navy, to rescue downed personnel. This is a reality that Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has highlighted in the past.

So, being able to use drones to deliver even very small cargoes like life vests, survival radios and locator beacons, first aid supplies, and food and water could well help those individuals hold out until more robust help arrives. KC-135s are often already operating in more forward areas, so they are often quicker on the scene and have the endurance to support recovery efforts.

Minihan’s next point about runway surveys reflects still-evolving Air Force-wide concepts of operations, referred to as Aigle Combat Employment, focused on expeditionary and distributed operations and the ability to rapidly deploy to remote or austere locations. The service views these capabilities as essential to reducing vulnerability, particularly in any future major conflict, where large, well-established bases will be prime targets right in the opening phase.

As such, there has been a resurgence of interest across the Air Force in recent years in the ability to use roadways as forward deployment locations and the ability to rapidly establish operations at other small or non-traditional airstrips. As one example of how the capability Minihan was describing could utilized, the Air Force has demonstrated the ability of personnel remotely operating MQ-9 Reaper drones to survey runways, including dirt strips, while in flight and then land at them safely. This obviates the need for specialized teams on the ground to do this work.

Minihan’s final mention of how KC-135-launched drones could potentially be used as decoys or sensor nodes reflect what are perhaps some of the more obvious applications. Uncrewed aerial systems with these capabilities, as well as ones that might be carrying stand-in jamming suites, could help detect incoming threats or even actively protect tankers, which would be high-value targets in a major conflict. They could also just provide additional situational awareness. AMC has been experimenting already with partnering KC-135s with loyal wingman-type drones for exactly the same kinds of reasons.

The AMC commander’s additional highlighting of how drones could be ‘seeded’ through an area and then ‘woken’ back up to perform various tasks when called upon is also very interesting and is something other elements of the U.S. military are interested in, as well. Both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army have been exploring using various platforms, including cargo aircraft and high-altitude balloons, to deploy swarms of drones deep into denied areas where they could function in these ways. Those services have also been eyeing using those swarms to carry out wide-scale kinetic strikes or electronic warfare attacks. KC-135-launch drones could potentially be employed in this manner, as well, where they could be especially useful again for defending the tankers.

A US Army graphic depicting multiple sensor and other capabilities, including high-altitude balloons capable of deploying drone swarms. US Army

How exactly AMC envisions a KC-135 launching and/or controlling drones configured to carry out any of these missions is not entirely clear. However, during today’s roundtable, Minihan did bring up the Common Launch Tube (CLT) as one possibly useful existing technology. The CLT is a standardized aerial launch system for munitions and small drones that the U.S. military employs on various platforms, particularly drones and special operations aircraft, as you can read more about here.

Sonobuoy launchers might also be another starting point for deploying drones in mid-air from KC-135s. The multi-purpose nature of these launchers is something The War Zone has highlighted in the past.

Whatever launch mechanism might be employed, KC-135s have ample extra cabin volume that could accommodate this capability. This could also allow the aircraft to carry multiple different types of drones that could be deployed as needed.

A view inside a KC-135 showing just some of the space available. USAF

Though not mentioned today directly in the context of the discussion about the KC-135 as a future drone launch platform, AMC is actively in the process of adding new networking capabilities, like the Real-Time Information in the Cockpit (RTIC) system, to those tankers that have already been used to link them together with uncrewed platforms. Minihan has made clear that greater network connectivity for all of AMC’s fleets is a major goal. He has an initiative in place now, called “25 by 25,” which is pushing to achieve a new degree of connectivity across 25 percent of all of the command’s aircraft by 2025.

It is entirely possible that if the drone-launching concept proves viable on the KC-135 that it could expand to other current and future aerial refueling tankers in Air Force inventory, too.

Minihan has been a major advocate for finding novel ways to otherwise expand the functionality of aircraft under his command, including the Rapid Dragon palletized launch system. Rapid Dragon is a modular system that has so far been demonstrated as a way to launch AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cruise missiles from the main cargo bays of C-17 and multiple C-130-series aircraft, including MC-130J Commando II special operations tanker/transports.

Questions remain about how this capability might be employed in a future conflict where airlifters are likely to be in high demand in their primary role. The AMC commander has said in the past that no matter how extensively Rapid Dragon might be used, it will force opponents like China to consider every cargo plane to also be a potential stand-off strike threat, complicating their decision-making processes.

In addition, cruise missiles are “just one aspect of palletized effects,” Minihan said today. “We could deploy a decoy, we did put out a jamming [system], we could put out a sensor that could find a radio and provide search and rescue [support]. … All those things I think are on the table when I talk about Rapid Dragon and when I talk about palletized effects. It’s much broader than just the kinetic side of the business.”

Minihan is a supporter of more active integration of uncrewed capabilities to support his command’s main mission sets, as well. He specifically highlighted comments that Air Force Lt. Gen. James Slife, the service’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, made last week about how the service’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) advanced drone program might lead to new uncrewed airlift and aerial refueling capabilities.

General Atomics artwork depicting various advanced drones in their Gambit family, one of which is seen here launching an air-to-air missile. GA-ASI GA-ASI

“I mean, imagine if there’s a CCA that’s actually… a tanker, as well, and can extend those ranges,” Minihan said today. “I think there’s challenges [to that, but] I don’t think they’re insurmountable. … We just have to make sure that as we think about the CCA that we’re thinking about the mobility aspects of that at the same time, which is what my team is doing.”

When it comes to allowing KC-135s to also act as flying drone motherships, AMC is clearly still very early in the process of trying to turn that idea into an operational reality. At the same time, the command’s top officer is clearly very committed to the concept as part of a broader array of new capabilities that could be key in a future high-end fight.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.