Concerned about growing threats to the U.S. Air Force’s manned refueling aircraft, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has asked the service to explore alternatives, including optionally unmanned tankers.

According to a newly released report explaining the committee’s fiscal year 2019 defense authorization bill, the Air Force’s existing KC-135 Stratotanker and its new KC-46A Pegasus, which are both manned, are “large, high-value aircraft,” making them “increasingly difficult to protect.” As a result, the committee added $10 million “to prototype a contested-environment tanker.” 

A KC-46A test plane at Boeing Field in Seattle. (Photo by Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)
A KC-46A test plane at Boeing Field in Seattle. (Photo by Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)

“The committee believes, given the increasingly challenging operating environments our potential adversaries are presenting, it is prudent to explore options for optionally unmanned and more survivable tankers that could operate autonomously as part of a large, dispersed logistics fleet that could sustain attrition in conflict,” the panel wrote.

Also in the report, the committee added $50 million to continue developing a radar for a successor to the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). While the Air Force wants to cancel the replacement, asserting a new ground-surveillance plane would not be survivable in contested environments, the SASC argues it would be “prudent” to continue the radar’s development in case the Air Force finds another use for it.

The committee endorsed Air Force Special Operations Command’s development of a laser gunship prototype and urged the Department of Defense to eliminate a $62 million shortfall in that effort. The command aims to test a 60-kilowatt, solid-state laser on an AC-130 aircraft by fiscal year 2022.

“The committee believes that the department should make the investment necessary to field this potentially transformative capability as soon as possible,” the panel wrote.

For the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the SASC calls on DoD to determine and inform Congress how many Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy jets it will upgrade to the future Block 4 configuration. The retrofit is estimated to cost $16 million for each plane from low-rate initial production (LRIP) Lots 2-8 and $13 million for each aircraft from LRIP Lots 9 and 10.

“With more than 350 F-35s already procured that could require modification to Block 4 and the substantial cost to modify each aircraft to the most advanced configuration to provide the best capability to the warfighter, considerable affordability issues face the department,” the panel wrote.

The SASC approved the defense bill in late May (Defense Daily, May 25). The full Senate began debating the legislation this week and is expected to finish its deliberations next week. Senators have submitted more than 100 amendments for potential floor consideration.