Boeing seeks to enhance KC-46 defenses while the Air Force considers options for the tanker’s future.

At the Paris Air Show on Tuesday, Boeing and its subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences revealed their ambitions to build new and upgraded defensive capabilities for the KC-46 Pegasus and other future aerial refueling and mobility aircraft. These ideas were presented at the show. The decision by Boeing and Aurora to enhance the Pegasus’ defensive capabilities comes at a time when the military is preparing for the potential of a conflict with a technologically advanced foe like China. The United States Air Force is concerned that such a battle would include combat in airspace that is strongly contested.

Top authorities in the Air Force have stated that if there were to be an air war, the enemy would most likely target aerial tankers, which would be required to refuel fighters, bombers, or other aircraft flying near the battlefield. These officials have also stated that the Air Force’s future tankers need to be able to survive such a conflict. Earlier this year, the Air Force’s priorities shifted, which 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, also known as NGAS.

Additionally, the Air Force is contemplating not holding a competition to choose the next generation of refueling tankers for the service. Instead, it is possible that the service will go directly to Boeing and purchase another batch of modified KC-46s in order to bridge the gap until the arrival of NGAS in the late 2030s. The Air Force had intended to purchase a total of 150 interim tankers; however, it is now more likely that they will only purchase around 75 of them.

According to Boeing, the Pegasus would be better able to survive in a high-end fight if it had improved defensive measures, and the Air Force might choose to utilize these capabilities on numerous aircraft. Additionally, Boeing stated that the unidentified defensive measures may be utilized on next-generation refueling and mobility aircraft, implying that they could be incorporated into Boeing’s anticipated proposal for NGAS.

“The KC-46A already features defensive systems that have never been seen in a tanker before,” said Justin Hatcher, the advanced technology director for Boeing’s KC-46 program. “These systems are unprecedented in a tanker,” “We continue to evolve the KC-46 as well as other next-generation refueling and mobility platforms in order to further enhance mission versatility and survivability.”

In order to protect the firm’s intellectual property, a representative for Boeing chose not to disclose any information regarding the research that the company is investing into tanker defensive capabilities or the amount that the company will spend. Boeing stated that when the defensive systems mature, the company will engage with clients such as the Air Force to determine whether or not to include these new capabilities on the KC-46 or other platforms, and when they would be implemented. Boeing also said that it will determine whether or not to include these new capabilities on the KC-46.

Boeing referred to the KC-46’s already installed defensive equipment and countermeasures, such as protection against electromagnetic pulses, chemical or biological weapons, infrared countermeasures, radio frequency alerts, and armor on the flight deck of the aircraft. Aurora is an industry leader in the development of cutting-edge, revolutionary aircraft designs. The company’s headquarters are located in Manassas, Virginia, and it operates a production site in Columbus, Mississippi. In 2017, Boeing completed the acquisition of Aurora. Lockheed Martin made the announcement earlier this month that it has decided to use a General Electric Aerospace engine for its proposed LMXT strategic tanker. The company is hoping to sell the LMXT to the Air Force as an interim tanker.

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