The U.S. Air Force may decide this summer on a buy of up to 75 tankers to fill the gap between the planned fielding of the 179th Boeing [BA] KC-46A Pegasus in 2029 and the fielding of the Next-Generation Air Refueling System (NGAS) in the mid-to-late 2030s.

The service wants to conduct an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) on NGAS and has decided to end the KC-Y program for buying 150 commercial tankers as a bridge to NGAS–formerly known as KC-Z (Defense Daily, March 7). The AoA is to examine various attributes, including stealth, advanced protection systems, connectivity, and improved range/fuel efficiency that NGAS may need to operate effectively against high-tech adversaries. KC-Z wss not to field until the 2040s, so NGAS would represent a decade’s acceleration of a future tanker.

“In FY 23, there’s some pre-AoA work, and there is money in the [FY] 24 budget to start an Analysis of Alternatives,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Moore, the service’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told a Mitchell Insittute for Aerospace Studies virtual forum on Apr. 6. “In the meantime, we will continue KC-135 recapitalization. Both the Secretary [of the Air Force, Frank Kendall] and Mr. [Andrew] Hunter [Air Force acquisition chief] have said that will likely look very much like a KC-46, Block 1, and the Secretary has asked Mr. Hunter to make a decision as soon as possible, and I think by the summer we’ll see clarity on that.”

The Air Force continues to retire older KC-135R tankers–the youngest of which dates to 1964, Moore said. Congressional defense authorizers set a minimum fiscal 2023 requirement for 466 tankers. The KC-46A fleet and possible future tankers would replace more than 400 Boeing KC-135Rs and KC-10s in the coming decades.

Before the KC-Y cancellation, the Air Force had been examining whether to go forward on a program to buy 140-160 KC-Ys to fill the gap between a planned final delivery of the 179th KC-46A in 2029 and a future tanker (Defense Daily, Aug. 12, 2022).

Industry had worked on a business case analysis for KC-Y to help inform requirements on the then-envisioned commercial tanker.

Lockheed Martin [LMT] had geared up for a KC-Y competition and, in January last year, said that the company planned to build the LMXT refueler, based on the Airbus A330, in Mobile, Ala., and Marietta, Ga. (Defense Daily, Jan. 31, 2022).

“There is some decision space here for Mr. Hunter,” Moore said on Apr. 6 regarding the gapfiller tanker between KC-46 and NGAS. “There are other entrants [beside Boeing] into the tanker enterprise. In this case, it’s about the number of aircraft that we think will fit in that gap, and the premise of this conversation is it’s about 75 airplanes and the time we’ll need them, to start procurement in [20]27 for deliveries in [20]29 to come in right on top of the KC-46 program we have on contract now. That’s a decision for the service acquisition executive.”

On Apr. 6, Moore also responded to a question on the Air Force’s planned fiscal 2024 retirement of 32 Block 20 F-22 fighters by Lockheed Martin to help fund the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.

The Air Force’s renewed request in fiscal 2024 to retire the Block 20 F-22s accounts for more than $400 million of the service’s $2.3 billion request for NGAD (Defense Daily, March 30).

“The cost of the F-22 Block 20 enterprise is about $485 million a year so we say, round numbers, it’s about $2.5 billion across the five-year budgeting horizon,” Moore said. “In the event that we are again restricted from divesting those aircraft and the money is not appropriated to fly them, there’ll be a half a billion dollars of something that won’t get done. Perhaps, it will be NGAD. Perhaps, it’ll be munitions. Perhaps, we’ll stand down the F-22 fleet, but no matter what there’ll be half a billion dollars worth of something that doesn’t get done unless the restriction comes with an accompanying appropriation.”

Moore told the House Armed Services Committee’s air and land forces subcommittee on March 29 that the Block 20 F-22s “could be used for training, but the configuration of the [Block 20 F-22] cockpit is different than the configuration of combat representative aircraft, and so as we train pilots in a Block 20 aircraft there’s negative learning that occurs, and they have to unlearn some of the things that they learn in the Block 20 when they go to an operational aircraft.”

Section 143 of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the retirement of airworthy F-22s and charges the Government Accountability Office with conducting an audit to determine the cost and schedule of upgrading Block 20 F-22s to Block 30/35s or above.

“To bring the [Block 20 F-22] airplanes up to combat capability would be something around $3.5 billion,” Moore said on Apr. 6. “The real challenge is it would take a decade to get that started. There’s a lot of engineering work that that would take. Both the F-22 and the F-35 are Lockheed aircraft. Lockheed is not fully staffed for engineers, and so, if we were to stand up an effort like this [Block 20 F-22 upgrade], it would be reasonable to expect they would have to pull some engineering talent off of F-35–probably that means Block 4–in order to get this accomplished. I think that trade to us doesn’t make any sense at all, to upgrade aircraft a decade from now at great expense while impacting the F-35 Block 4 at the same time. We don’t think that that’s a viable course of action.”