US Air Force to modernize KC-135 tanker fleet with drone launch capabilities for combat operations

The concept of launching drones from KC-135 tankers is being explored by the U.S. Air Force's Air Mobility Command (AMC). According to General Mike Minihan, head of the AMC, these drones could serve as decoys, and remote sensors, help forces navigate to their destinations, explore new landing locations, and even assist in the rescue of downed pilots.

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US Army to modernize KC 135 tanker fleet with drone launch capabilities for enhanced combat operations 925 001  The KC-135 Stratotanker has been a cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force's aerial refueling fleet (Picture source: US DoD)

The KC-135 Stratotanker has been a cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force's aerial refueling fleet since it was introduced in 1957. Initially designed to extend the range and endurance of fighter jets and bombers, the aircraft has seen extensive service in various roles and theaters. During the Vietnam War, it played a critical role in refueling combat aircraft, enabling them to carry out extended missions. In more recent conflicts in the Middle East, including the Gulf Wars and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the KC-135 continued to provide vital air-to-air refueling support.

Beyond its primary role in military operations, the aircraft has been adapted for humanitarian missions, delivering relief supplies in the aftermath of natural disasters. While less common, the KC-135 has also been equipped for special missions, including reconnaissance and surveillance tasks.

From now on, KC-135 tankers could also be used to drop drones, thus providing positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) data to those who do not have it. They could be used for combat search and rescue (CSAR) missions, which is particularly important in high-intensity conflicts where stealth aircraft often operate deep in very high-risk areas.

The AMC also tested a system using magnetic compasses to navigate in environments where GPS is denied. Indeed, due to jamming and tampering, having a fleet of drones that can provide alternative navigation data is invaluable. This is particularly important as China and Russia are actively developing capabilities to disrupt GPS systems.

Drones could also be used for electronic intelligence (ELINT) and intelligence-gathering missions.

The KC-135 could also serve as a communications node for other platforms, including armed drones, through the Real-Time Cockpit Information (RTIC) initiative. This initiative aims to provide KC-135 crews with much better situational awareness, pushing much more precise information to Airmen almost instantly.