Rejuvenating U.S. Air Force electronic warfare (EW), building industrial capacity for munitions development and production in light of the Ukraine conflict and future deterrence of China, and development of next generation mobility/tanking aircraft may be areas touched on in the service’s upcoming fiscal 2024 budget request.

“One of the outgrowths of the past year of work has been the decision to do some analysis on three what I’m calling cross-cutting enabling capabilities–electronic warfare, munitions, and mobility,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told a Council on Foreign Relations forum on Jan. 11. “Electronic warfare is a long neglected area of warfare that we need to pay more attention to…Having a solid munitions roadmap includes production capacity we need as well as the right suite of systems for the targets we’re gonna have to deal with and the way we’re gonna have to deal with them.”

“Mobility is driven by the threat changes, by what the threat is doing to reach out to increasingly long ranges to engage our aircraft,” Kendall said. “Traditionally, we could take a commercial derivative aircraft, turn it into a tanker or transport. In the case of transports, we have built purpose-built aircraft like the C-17, but they essentially look like a commercial aircraft. They’re not designed with a high set of requirements for survivability. The threat’s taking that freedom away from us.”

“We are looking at–and it’s too early to have any results yet–at a next generation capability,” he said, adding that a Blended Wing Body (BWB) transport/tanker “is one of the very prominent candidates.”

The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), the Air Force, and NASA are collaborating on a Blended Wing Body demonstrator that DIU wants to fly by 2026 (Defense Daily, Aug. 4, 2022).

Such an aircraft may save the Pentagon significant fuel costs and could fill niches for the Air Force for a future cargo aircraft or even the KC-Z tanker, which may incorporate stealth features.

Under BWB, the wings are not distinct from the aircraft body but blended into it, and the engine may be on top of the aircraft or embedded in the airframe, “giving additional lift, range, and efficiency while improving survivability,” DIU said.

The BWB design “doesn’t exist in the commercial world yet,” Kendall said on Jan. 11. “We are doing some early design work on that, possibly moving towards a prototype as a DoD program. There’s more to come on that. We recognize the need.”

The Air Force has fielded more than 60 Boeing [BA] KC-46 tankers, a derivative of the legacy commercial 767 airliner, on the service’s path to field 179 planned KC-46s to replace aging KC-135 and KC-10 tankers.

“I think that we’re going to have to move beyond that [KC-46] to a next generation that’s gonna have to survive in an environment that the current fleet hasn’t had to worry about,” Kendall said.

While “next generation” may mean stealth tankers for regions such as the Indo-Pacific, it may also portend lightly crewed tankers with inherent electronic attack that are able to take off from shorter runways.

“I loathe how an entire generation of Air Force professionals still equate ‘survivability’ with ‘stealth,'” retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mike “Pako” Benitez, the former director of staff for the Air Force 53rd Wing, the service’s primary operational test wing, wrote in a LinkedIn discussion of Kendall’s CFR remarks. “There’s more to it…much more. There’s a good lesson there about the long-term effects of the deliberate 1990s brain drain of all things EW in the Air Force—sacrificed at the altar of stealth.”

During the CFR forum, Kendall noted that the military services, including the Air Force, need to be able to surge production for precision and other munitions and spare parts during wartime and that the Ukraine conflict has pointed to shortcomings in that capacity.

“The trade-off tends to have been, historically, do I forego, I’ll use an Air Force example, five new fighter planes in order to have another production line somewhere, or do I really want the five new fighter planes?” Kendall said. “Traditionally, we’ve tended to buy the fighter planes. I think we’ve gotta rethink that.”