The Air Mobile Command is said to be considering equipping some of its cargo planes and air tankers with air defense systems, including air-to-air missiles. In an interview with Breaking Defense, Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost said:
“We have hardpoints on the C-17; we have hardpoints on the KC-46. It’s not a hard stretch to think that we could put one or two missiles on there for self defense.”
The concept for increasing the survivability of heavy utility aircraft has been around for a relatively long time in various countries. During the Falklands War in 1982, the Royal Air Force decided to equip the Nimrod MR.2P maritime patrol aircraft with the ability to carry Sidewinder missiles to protect them from the Argentine fighters.
Van Ovost remains very optimistic in terms of the development of the X-61A Gremlin Air Vehicle, as she likes the idea of being able to rearm the defensive counter-air vehicles onboard a plane in flight.
The defense of high-value planes becomes a necessity as they become prone to interception by enemy fighters. Arming the utility aircraft with defensive capabilities opens the possibilities to react quickly. Yet, Van Ovost points out that there is another key aspect: “The number one thing we have to have to help our survivability is battlespace awareness.”
Currently, the USAF struggles with a lack of precise communication in the battlespace and situational awareness between the combat aircraft and its tankers. As Van Ovost mentions, it is important to have more options to make decisions in order to survive. In this case, connecting KC-135 and C-17 tankers into a network of information exchange would give an upper hand and improve awareness. Thanks to that, the reaction to help tankers in trouble would also be much faster.
This can be solved by the development of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) that would interconnect the tankers into the network. Van Ovost noted that the KC-46 tanker has been selected by the Rapid Capabilities Office to receive communications pods as a part of the ABMS. They will serve as translation platforms between the non-compatible platforms, such as the F-22 and F-35.
Van Ovost did not mention when such defensive capabilities will be added to the tankers, but the idea shows how AMC thinking outside of the box to ensure the development of concepts for increasing the survivability of the utility aircraft. The primary issue is the survivability of the aircraft in combat. Whether the cargo planes receive the air to air missiles depends on a variety of factors, but we can expect the USAF to put an emphasis on the increase of situational awareness for the crews first.