The Case for an Optionally Manned Tanker
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The Case for an Optionally Manned Tanker

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Nathan Campbell
246x189x2 mm

The Air Force has embraced unmanned aircraft systems and begun the process of incorporating them fully into the force structure. Over the last 50 years, these systems have grown from target drones modified for reconnaissance into remotely piloted medium altitude strike platforms and autonomous, high altitude, multispectral ISR systems. As the Air Force looks towards a future of large platform unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) systems will evolve into optionally manned aircraft (OMA), blending the best of both manned and remotely piloted operations, and build in the capability to implement full autonomy as the technology becomes available. While a clear path for these systems have been laid out for ISR, Global Strike and other combat missions, this paper explores the concept of UAS fulfilling the combat support mission of air refueling. Based on projected procurement timelines for KC-Y, technological feasibility fielding an autonomous air refueling capability, and increased likelihood of cultural acceptance of UAS accomplishing this particular mission, an optionally manned tanker is the ideal first mission for the large aircraft MQ-L UAS envisioned in the US Air Forces UAS Flight Plan 2009-2047. The Air Force needs to explore concepts of employment and implications of nontraditional RPA missions now to properly plan for, acquire and allocate resources for the force of tomorrow. The time is right to begin planning for the next air refueling tanker to be optionally manned.

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