To refuel the F-22 and F-35 deep in enemy territory, the Air Force is going to need something a little less obvious on a radar screen.
The U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command recently announced the "KC-Z" program intended to develop a next-generation tanker aircraft—one that could fly into dangerous airspace to support strike fighters like the F-22 and F-35—by 2035. Lockheed Martin was the first to answer the call for ideas, and that company recently released design information about a hybrid wing-body aircraft with short take-off and landing capabilities, according to Aviation Week.
Although the new tanker wouldn't have a high level of stealth, the low profile of a blended wing-body airframe would naturally produce a smaller radar cross-section than current tankers. (The KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotanker, and even the KC-36 Pegasus that is currently under development, all have large-body designs similar to commercial airliners.) Lockheed is also considering embedding the engines within the airframe to keep the KC-Z as stealthy as possible to avoid radar detection, surface-to-air missiles, and other anti-aircraft weapons.
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WNU Editor: This tanker program is decades away from being manufactured .... but the positioning is starting now.