The US Air Force is modernizing its KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueler fleet with Link 16, Situational Awareness Datalink (SADL) and Secure Beyond Line of Sight communications, upgrades which allowed one of the modernized airframes to recently carry out a first test flight with a “loyal wingman” drone.
Stratotankers are receiving the upgrades as part of the real-time information in the cockpit system (RTIC) project, which will bring the aircraft into the 21st century and revolutionize the tanker’s role in combat.
In July, 2020, the Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Air Refueling Wing was the first to upgrade a KC-135 under RTIC.
“As we saw the progression of the RTIC program, we knew we wanted the Utah Air National Guard to lead the charge, and we want to continue to lead the integration of technology that enables our warfighters,” said Brig. Gen. Daniel Boyack, commander of the Utah Air National Guard. “The RTIC program provides the pathway and baseline for the KC-135 to support the Advanced Battle Management System.”
The Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, allows a joint force to use cutting-edge methods and technologies to rapidly collect, analyze, and share information and make decisions in real-time.
Lt. Col. Jeff Gould, a Utah Guardsman, led the team at the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC) working with the KC-135 Program Office to integrate the RTIC program on the KC-135.
“For years, I have relied on AWACS or receiver aircraft, a grease pencil and a laminated chart to build a real-time combat picture. With RTIC, my ability to gain situational awareness is near instantaneous and much more accurate,” Gould stated.
KC-135 Test Detachment
In December, 2020, the National Guard Bureau named the Utah Air National Guard as the interim KC-135 Test Detachment for AATC.
Prior to being named the interim KC-135 test detachment, the Utah Air National Guard was already leaning forward supporting in an Air Force Research Lab experiment on the Navy test range at China Lake, CA.
Specialized equipment was added to the RTIC infrastructure that allowed the KC-135 to receive data from the SkyDog unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program via the Kratos unmanned tactical aerial platform-22 (UTAP-22).
The goal was for the KC-135 to act as a data repository for all air, land, sea, space and cyber players using AI to fuse and correlate data into a cohesive picture. Planned upgrades to the KC-135 that will enable air refueling include integrating a digital backbone, hardpoints and antenna upgrades.
“We were able to successfully receive off-board data from the UTAP-22 that we normally would not get through Link 16. Full-motion video, along with a host of sensor information was pushed to our crew,” said Gould.
“The KC-135 is expected to play a critical role as a node within ABMS and JADC2, this is the first step in supporting the future of warfare. Gathering, correlating and fusing off-board aircraft data is critical to creating former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisitions Dr. Roper’s ‘military internet of things.”
Col. Jeremiah Tucker, AATC Commander, said training like this has already contributed to ABMS and JADC2 experimentation programs for manned and unmanned teaming and highlights the benefit of setting up a test detachment and working with forward thinking units like the Utah Air National Guard.
“By working with the Utah Air National Guard, we believe we can start to build towards enhancing the combat effectiveness of the KC-135,” said Tucker. “We expect the KC-135 will provide and enhance combat capability beyond 2040, even as the KC-46 is expected to be operational in 2026.”
The partnership with the Utah National Guard has led to other training opportunities designed to revolutionize the KC-135’s warfighting role. Since 2018, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command committed resources to add defensive capabilities into the KC-135.
“Our adversaries have watched how we fight wars since the end of the Cold War and built systems to counter-or blunt USAF technological advantages. We are looking at KC-135 upgrades, such as the open architecture podded solutions, to help us elevate the combat overmatch trajectory we have enjoyed,” said Tucker.
Currently 20 KC-135s are modified with wing-mounted pods, known as Multipoint Refueling System (MPRS) Pods, for refueling operations with Navy and Marine Corps and NATO aircraft. AATC plans on modifying two additional ARC owned KC-135s using the MPRS outer mold-line pods with an internal open-architecture to additional space for a host of ABMS and defensive technologies.
In a future conflict, the rate and volume of 1s and 0s the KC-135 passes will be just as valuable as the fuel it provides today,” Tucker went on to state. The KC-135 open-architecture pod, tentatively called the Gladiator Pod, is expected to be equipped on a few KC-135 aircraft by fiscal year 2023 for flight testing. AATC plans on equipping the pod with the necessary sensors capable of detecting, identifying, tracking, and defending as a data node within ABMS.
The ‘Gladiator pod’ is three to four times larger than any pod our fighter aircraft uses, which is why the KC-135 is well-suited for this mission. With these modifications, the KC-135 will be able to act as a data node and host within ABMS while also having the ability to protect the tanker with limited fighter support.
“In order to meet the demands of a changing world, we felt it necessary to adapt the KC-135 with technology that is flying on Combat Air Forces aircraft and even on the KC-135. Utilizing the outer mold line of the MPRS pod, we can rapidly integrate modular and adaptive communication, defensive, and sensor technologies on the KC-135,” said Gould.
The future of the KC-135
TRANSCOM and Air Mobility Command in a 2019 hearing to Congress stated the Air Force needs to maintain a fleet of 479 tankers. With an intended purchase of 179 KC-46 aircraft, the Air Force will still need 300 KC-135s primarily flown and maintained by the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves. The KC-135 is expected to provide the preponderance of air refueling beyond 2040 as the KC-46 becomes operational.
Adversaries, such as Russia and China, have modernized their forces while proliferating their technology around the world. Extending their reach of influence and combat effectiveness will require modernization of Eisenhower-era tankers.
“Providing support to AATC as a test detachment will play a critical role towards the KC-135’s modernization efforts and will only help to ensure we [tankers] can provide the combat effect needed by our Combatant Commanders,” said Boyack. “We have a talented group of Utah Guardsmen leading these efforts and are excited to see what they help develop and field next.”
Ground and flight testing for the RTIC program will occur at the Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base from March – May 2021.