Specialists from the Center for Defense Concepts and Technologies of the Hudson Institute argue that American aviation will face an acute shortage of fuel when it invades the airspace of Russia or China. Although the Pentagon has the world’s largest fleet of tanker aircraft, the success of their combat use is questionable. About the arguments and conclusions of analysts – in the material RIA Novosti.
Shortage of tankers
The United States has the most powerful air armada on the planet: the Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps have more than 13,000 aircraft and helicopters, not counting drones. And Washington is not shy about using them to the fullest – it is aviation that plays a decisive role in the Pentagon’s military operations around the world.
The standard strategy is to gain air superiority, inflict maximum damage on the enemy with strike aircraft and precision weapons, and only then move ground forces into battle. Infantry and tanks are often left to capture the smoking ruins. However, Hudson Institute experts believe that this will not work with Russia or China.
The whole point is, to put it mildly, in the imperfect condition of tanker aircraft, which provide the Air Force with kerosene far from home airfields. Without them, fighters and bombers will not be able to strike at great distances. This is especially critical in a conflict with states with vast territories.
“After the Cold War, three decades ago, our tanker aircraft continued to operate around the world, in both peacekeeping and combat operations,” the report says. In fact, today all tanker aircraft are used. And we have no reserve in case of war with China or Russia. The enemy knows about this weakness and will actively exploit it. As a result, the US Air Force may lose effectiveness on the battlefield.”
The shortage of flying tankers is not the only problem. The authors of the study remind that the average age of the KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotanker is 52 years. By aviation standards, this is a lot. And if the “Extenders”, which were put into service in 1981, have not yet exhausted their resource, then most of the “Stratotankers” produced from 1954 to 1965 should be sent for scrap.
The Pentagon began looking for an alternative to outdated aircraft 20 years ago. In 2001, a program was launched to develop three new types of tankers. It was planned to build 179 vehicles of the promising KC-X and KC-Y projects each to replace the KC-135 and by 2040 to establish mass production of the KC-Z in order to send the remaining KC-10 to scrap. However, difficulties arose.
The contract for the KC-X project in 2011 was received by the Boeing corporation, which developed the KC-46 Pegasus refueling tank on the basis of the passenger Boeing-767. On paper, it carries 95 tons of fuel on board – almost double the KC-135. The plane was stuffed with modern technologies. For example, operators have special 3D glasses to make refueling in the air easier.
The reality turned out to be not so rosy. Many of the fifty aircraft supplied by the Air Force suffer from a whole bunch of “childhood diseases”. The media say the new planes are unreliable. The pilots complained about the poorly fixed onboard equipment, vibrating strongly from the slightest shaking, and even refused to take the Pegasus into the sky. It is not surprising: after all, the units torn from the mountings can disrupt the alignment of the aircraft, which is fraught with an accident.
An unsuccessful refueling bar design nearly killed the F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bomber last year. It turned out that it is too tough: the tanker is exposed to excessive loads, and its resource is reduced. The Pentagon has allocated $ 55 million to fix the shortcomings and postponed further deliveries of KC-46s to the Air Force until at least 2024. Of course, this will affect the timing of the completion of projects KC-Y and KC-Z.
In addition to building up the fleet of winged tankers, Hudson Institute experts insist on the construction of additional airfields in the Indo-Pacific region for receiving heavy aircraft and storing fuel. Calculations are cited: if you spend annually on this from 400 to 600 million dollars, then by 2040 the number of air refueling flights will double, which will greatly help in a hypothetical war with China. Otherwise, according to Washington, the US Air Force will have no more than a dozen suitable airfields, which will seriously limit the capabilities of aviation.
In addition, it should be borne in mind that Russia and the PRC have strong air defense. One thing is a military operation somewhere in the Middle East, where you can refuel a bomber in the skies of the allies. Quite another thing is the support of aviation in the depths of the territory of a huge country.
Tankers are an easy target for anti-aircraft missile systems. Russia has S-400s with a range of 400 kilometers and MiG-31 interceptors that can hit R-33 missiles at 300 kilometers, so American tanker aircraft have something to fear. In addition, it is still unclear how to use them in conjunction with the fifth generation fighters F-22 and F-35. Refueling “invisible” in the air completely unmasks it, and the enemy’s air defense can kill two or even three birds with one stone at once.
In the United States, stealth air tankers, including unmanned ones, are being developed. However, when they en masse will go to the troops, it is not known. One way or another, the Hudson Institute report clearly shows that the US Air Force has its own Achilles heel.