Monday, August 22, 2016

Why The Navy Needs A Really Large Tanker Aircraft

Once again, we are honored to have a timely guest post from Mr. Bustamante with his thoughts on Navy tanker aircraft needs.  Please be sure to read his bio at the end of the post.


Why the Navy Needs a Really Large Tanker Aircraft

Some Unruly Thoughts on Strike Warfare Against a Peer Competitor [1]

Figure 1. S-3Bs Conduct Aerial Refueling with the Hose-and-Drogue System

Source: open source

If the U.S. Navy expects to employ carriers against peer competitor who can establish substantial Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) defenses, it will need large tankers, much longer ranged tactical aircraft, and long-ranged standoff weapons.  The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has published several excellent analyses papers making the case that we face adversaries with A2/AD defenses designed specifically to counter American naval and air-superiority extending from 1,000 nm, to1,500 nm or more from a hostile coast.[2]  It is important to note that ships, submarines, aircraft are not automatically destroyed when they enter into an area protected by a sophisticated A2/AD network, but they do risk detection and ultimately destruction that is directly related to the time exposed to the enemy maritime strike-reconnaissance network.  This presents a formidable range requirement for naval aircraft designs built in the last four decades and one that seems unlikely to be met satisfactorily with external fuel systems like conformal fuel tanks.[3]  Ironically, a typical 1960s carrier task force had both long ranged attack aircraft (A-3s, A-6s, and A-5s), and the tanker assets necessary to support escorting fighters for long range strike missions.[4]  The USN today, however, finds itself without long ranged aircraft due to decades of aircraft procurement policy favoring sortie generation over “deck load strike”, failure of the A-12 program, and retirement of long-ranged legacy aircraft.  The requirement for a long range attack aircraft and a big tanker is driven by the physics of fuel consumption and the relatively short range of carrier aviation.  Tanker aircraft allow strike packages to launch with maximum weapons load, but minimum fuel loads, then aerial refuel to maximize fuel load, while simultaneously reducing stress on airframes and extending the life of aircraft.  Large tankers are not only more efficient at delivering fuel, they are also a welcome savior for aircraft returning with combat damage, or Combat Air Patrol (CAP) aircraft returning from an extended mission.  While the F/A-18 is criticized for its relatively short combat radius, the reality is that the longest ranged carrier-based fighters would be challenged by today’s A2/AD defenses.[5]  The current solution to this dilemma is provided by U.S. Air Force, which operates the core of U.S. military aerial refueling fleet, largely consisting of ~460 KC-135 and KC-10 aircraft.[6]  These aircraft have performed yeoman service for naval aviation, but the USAF tanker fleet is prioritized for USAF requirements: delivery of large volumes of fuel to a single large bomber.  USAF tankers are primarily configured to use a unique “flying boom” fuel delivery system, a rigid, telescoping tube that the tanker aircraft extends and inserts into a receptacle on the aircraft being refueled; however, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft refuel using the “hose-and drogue” system, which is a flexible hose that trails from the tanker and drogue (windsock) that stabilizes it in flight.[7]  The USAF also uses JP-8 fuel, while the Navy uses JP-5.  In order to fuel USN and USMC aircraft, Air Force tankers generally have to flush their tanks and install a modified hose-and-drogue system, the inventory of which is sufficient to equip about a third of the tanker fleet.[8]  The new KC-46A is equipped with both the flying boom and the hose-and-drogue systems built into the airframe, but aircraft fuel compatibility remains an issue. 

Figure 2.  USAF KC-135A Refueling a B-52D1

Source: open source
1.  The flying boom system designed specifically for fast, efficient refueling of very large aircraft like bombers.

The KC-46A is also just entering production and the current procurement plan is for only 179 aircraft.[9]  The balance of the USAF tanker fleet is also old and shrinking.[10]  Moreover, the USAF is likely to need every tanker to support a long-range bomber campaign in a high end conflict and these aircraft will be based to support USAF missions.  This is likely to leave Navy aviation without desperately needed aerial refueling capability in war.  This article will first examine the long range strike mission, review the aerial refueling requirements needed to support strike packages, and then show why current naval aircraft are not well suited the role.  Finally we will suggest some solutions to the issue.

Figure 3.  USAF KC-46A Refueling a Pair of F/A-18s1

Source: open source
1.  The KC-46A has both the flying boom system; and the hose-and-drogue system.

We should ask ourselves, does the USN have a requirement to conduct long range strike operations using carrier based aviation?  Dollars are tight - a large tanker, and possibly a large tactical aircraft program, must fully justify the additional expense.  We could accept the status quo where long-ranged naval strike missions are tied to the availability of USAF tanker assets.  After all, the USN, and USMC used USAF tankers to support long missions to Afghanistan following 9/11.  Besides, the USAF is tasked with deep inland strikes; the USN has plenty of RGM/UGM-109 Tomahawk missiles for long-range strikes and highly capable submarines for clandestine launches.  Finally, there is the argument that carrier aviation exists to provide local air superiority for naval task forces – thus an alternate strategy for carrier employment might call for blockade, minelaying, and commerce raiding instead of deep strike.  In the end, none of these propositions are entirely acceptable; particularly given that the Navy had a plethora of tankers and long-range attack aircraft in the middle of the last century.  This is a problem with a readily definable technical solution that was worked out in the 1950s and then fielded.  Large organic tanker capability is incredibly useful, even when conducting strikes well within the range of strike aircraft.  USAF tankers are not always going to be conveniently based to support naval strikes, especially if the Navy pursues operations outside the USAF’s primary theater of operations.  In practice, USAF aircraft flying from known, geographically fixed bases may prove to be more vulnerable to attack than an aircraft carrier.  The submarine launched deep strike mission is in direct competition with the use of submarines for the critical anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission and the commerce raiding missions, which I give much higher priority.  Further, an operational shift, or technological breakthrough favoring ASW might dramatically affect submarine survivability or effectiveness.  Finally, a good military policy is to retain redundancy and flexibility with weapon systems and units where possible. 

Modern tactical air operations place a premium on Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD); the ratio of aircraft actually delivering steel on target might only be one out every three or four planes.  Most of the aircraft in a strike package will be fighter escorts, electronic warfare aircraft, SEAD aircraft, command and control aircraft, and other air frames, just to make sure the bomb droppers get to their weapon release points.[11]  During the Gulf War, strike packages of up to 50-60 tactical aircraft were generally required to assure the penetration of 12-16 aircraft with ground attack munitions!  The proliferation of advanced SAMs and advanced fighter aircraft gives us little hope that the situation will dramatically improve.  Additional considerations are the extensive fortifications constructed by many potential adversaries to protect key military and civil infrastructure to complicate U.S. strike operations.  This will demand larger ordinance loads, and also gives us little hope of using external fuel tanks extensively as a solution to extending aircraft range.

So what would it take to support the fuel needs of a carrier task force (TF) strike package of 60 or so aircraft?  I am assuming the TF is willing to risk a high speed dash at 30 knots to penetrate 240 nm into the A2/AD network (~8hrs), and that stand-off weapons range is 60+ nm, so the strike package needs to penetrate (fly) about 900 nm get to weapons release point for stand- off weapons   The key determinants are based upon the combat radius and fuel capacity of the aircraft flying in the strike.  Table 1 below gives us a quick summary of open source data in very rough approximation of the fuel and combat radius characteristics of selected naval aircraft.  Aside from the F/A-18E and F-35C, several historical aircraft are included as “place holders” to approximate potential performance of future aircraft. 

Table 1.  Fuel and Combat Radius Data for Tactical Naval Aircraft

Source: open source data is approximate and are for illustrative purposes.
1.  Combat radius is a very complex and qualified figure, see end note 2.
2.  F-35C figures are yet to be demonstrated.

The F-111 was included in the table because it was originally intended to be a joint USAF/USN carrier capable design and approaches the maximum size and weight of carrier capable airframes like the A-3D Skywarrior and A-5 Vigilante, arguably the closest aircraft to a strategic bomber that the USN has produced.[12]  The take away is that naval aviation, now based upon the F/A-18, is short ranged, and hugely dependent upon aerial tanking to conduct very long range strikes.  Even the “long-ranged” F-14 has qualifications.  A very rough estimate for an alpha strike package of 60 F/A-18 aircraft (to include F/A-18Gs) will require at least 36,750 lbs. of fuel, and three refueling operations per aircraft to reach 900 nm.  A strike package of 60 aircraft would require over 2.2 million lbs. of fuel!  This figure could overstate the actual fuel requirement because long-range missions may allow aircraft to operate at speed/altitude profiles that significantly enhance their fuel efficiency.  On the other hand, commonly quoted combat radii, do not address the inevitable delays that occur when aerially refueling dozens of tactical aircraft.  Also note, that this mission also requires tankers operate at least 600 nm from the carrier.  The situation improves slightly for an all F-35C strike package (27,990 lbs. per aircraft, 1.7 million lbs. of fuel for a 60 aircraft formation – but it still is a formidable requirement.  It is also questionable if the USN will buy a sufficient number of F-35s, and even if it does, the only tactical jammer currently in the U.S. inventory is the F/A-18G.  The F-35 is supposed to deliver many capabilities that promise to reduce the size of strike packages and increase survivability, but these have yet to be demonstrated.  A partial solution is of course to use external fuel tanks, but these come at a performance penalty and also increase the detectability of the strike force.  For these reasons, and to simplify what can be a very complicated analysis, the strike package fuel requirement assumes internal fuel loads only.

Having stated the requirement, what tanker assets are available to support the strike tanking requirements?  Table 2 below provides a summary of selected aerial refueling aircraft in the U.S. arsenal and matches them to the number of tankers required to deliver 1.7 million pounds of fuel to support a 60 aircraft strike.

Table 2.  Summary of Selected U.S. Aerial Refueling Assets

Source: open source data; approximations are for illustrative purposes.

1. Note that with the exception of the KC-135, all of the other aircraft options fail to provide fuel at useful ranges.
2. Figures are rounded up to the nearest whole number of aircraft.
3. The more common EKA-3B could deliver 21,000 lbs. of fuel at 460 nm, enough to fuel 2.2 full F-4Js, but it also retained significant stand-off jamming capabilities and could still carry ordinance while operating as a tanker.  The KA-3 and EKA-3B were far and away the best aerial refueling assets the Navy built.  They were also the largest carrier capable aircraft ever built with about 82,000 pounds maximum take-off weight.
4. With two 300 gallon tanks.
5. The KS-3A program was cancelled afte a single prototype was built.  Had it entered production,it arguably might have been the most capable dedicated Navy tanker.
6. The F/A-18E configured as a "buddy tanker".

What Table 2 really demonstrates is the huge load efficiency of very large, land-based tankers with maximum take-off weights exceeding 320,000 lbs. (the KC-46A has a maximum take-off weight of 415,000 pounds - over five times heavier than the largest carrier aircraft ever deployed, the KA-3).  This analysis also underestimates the tanking requirements of a long range strike package because with the exception of the KC-135, all of the other aircraft options fail the ability to provide fuel at useful range.  It also shows that the best tanker the Navy ever acquired, the KA-3, was still inefficient as a tanker, requiring an almost one to one ratio of tankers to F-35Cs to support a 900 nm strike.  The very worst tanker option is the F/A-18E operating as a “buddy tanker” due to the short intrinsic short range of the airframe.  In fact, the F/A-18E “buddy tanker” configuration will burn most of its transfer fuel capacity to reach 600 nm

Figure 4.  The Navy’s Best Tanker Ever - an EKA-3B Skywarrior Refuels an F-14

Source: A-3 Skywarrior Association

This is reminiscent of the U.S. Army Air Corps fiasco in WWII called Operation Matterhorn: an ill-conceived strategic bombing campaign against Japan by basing B-29s bombers in India and staging them from airfields in China.  Every gallon of fuel, every pound of ammunition and other military supplies had to be flown over the Himalayas to China.  Because the B-29 was inefficient as a tanker, it took seven round trip B-29 flights to build up enough fuel for a single B -29 mission against Japan; prompting General Curtis E. LeMay the commander of XX bomber Command to say: “The scheme of operations had been dreamed up like something out of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ...”[13]  Carrier aviation, lacking both a large tanker, and long ranged aircraft, is in danger of repeating this error.

Matching requirements to assets, suggests a number of options the U.S. Navy can, and should take to improve its strike capacity against first class adversaries with advanced A2/AD defenses.  Specifically:

1)     In the short term, the Navy should study the feasibility of returning some of the 100 A-6E aircraft in storage to service after refurbishment and conversion into KA-6Es.  The A-6E was given new composite wings shortly before retirement and could provide a great deal of relief to the air wings.  Conversion to unmanned or optionally manned operation should be considered.

2)     Long term, the Navy needs to procure a very large, carrier capable tanker aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of 80,000 pounds or larger, and an objective transfer fuel load of 40,000 lbs. delivered to 600 nm.  This aircraft should follow the “payload over platforms” design philosophy and provide a robust “pick-up truck” functionality over stealth and other features.

a)     The aircraft could be unmanned or optionally manned.
b)     A flying wing or blended wing design seems appropriate to maximize lift and internal fuel capacity.
c)      The tanker should have several "joint" features for maximum compatibility with the USAF and allies that use the flying boom (e.g.  Australia):

i)        Incorporate a flying boom receptacle to enable the new tanker to receive fuel very quickly from USAF tankers, while simultaneously refueling USN aircraft.[14]  This would open a number of tactical advantages, shorten refueling times, and allow strategic tanker aircraft to complete their missions more rapidly.
ii)      Incorporate certain USAF mounts for large capacity external fuel tanks. 
iii)    Possibly incorporate a flying boom for refueling USAF fighters.

3)     From a joint perspective, the Navy and Air Force must continue to integrate operations and ensure equipment interoperability. 

a)     The U.S. military needs to move to a single aviation fuel type to minimize logistics issues.  Given the number of aircraft in each service, this means that the Navy and Marine Corps should adapt JP-8, which is similar in chemical composition, but has a lower flashpoint than JP-5.

b)     The Navy must also seriously consider incorporating the USAF flying boom/receptacle compatible system into large aircraft like the P-8 or future attack aircraft.  It also means that the USAF must maintain sufficient numbers of Wing Air Refueling Pods for legacy tankers to support naval aircraft.  This is key, the Navy must support the USAF 100% in obtaining funding for these pods.

4)     Future naval aircraft must place a much higher emphasis on range and payload than the past three decades.  Plainly stated, this requirement greatly favors a large, long-ranged heavy attack aircraft; the same physics of moving large bomb loads over great distance was exactly what drove the procurement of the A-3, the A-6, and the A-5.  This aircraft will need to be larger than the X-47B - it could also be a drone or optionally manned.  It should incorporate certain USAF mounts for large stand-off weapons and large capacity external fuel tanks. 

5)     Improve stand-off ranges with a very long ranged (1,200 to 1,500 nm) air to ground weapon.  This also favors a large heavy attack aircraft in A-3/A-5/F-111weight class. Consider:

a)     Adapting Navy aircraft to carry long ranged USAF air-to-ground cruise missiles with conventional warheads to support strike operations.  This implies a large attack aircraft to carry them: for example an AGM-129A missile weighs over 3,500 pounds.[15]
b)     Procure a long ranged air-to-ground ballistic missile with a conventional warhead to support strike operations.[16]

These are appropriate actions for naval aviation but the Navy in general needs additional reforms to conduct strike warfare against modern a2/AD defenses.  First and foremost is the procurement of a very long ranged (1,200 to 1,500 nm) ship launched cruise missile and/or ballistic missiles for strike operations.  These weapons need not only greater range than BGM-109 tomahawk, they require more sophisticated warheads, for example anti-radiation seeker heads, earth penetrating warheads, and EW packages like jammers.  Serious consideration to stealth and hyper velocity propulsion is essential. 

[1] This article addresses high end war against a peer competitor, not COIN operations.

[2] See AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept, May 18, 2010 by Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, and Andrew F.  Krepinevich and Jim Thomas.  Available at

[3] The details of combat radius are highly technical and dependent upon a number of factors (ordinance and fuel loads, ingress and egress altitude, dash speed, weapon drag, etc.), but typical tactical aircraft combat radii range from 350 nm to about 600 nm.  External fuel systems work well, but impose trade-offs in performance, particularly in maneuverability, radar cross section, and use, or interfere with, munition hard points. 

[4] This capability was developed because Admirals Mitscher and Sallada proposed a nuclear bomb capable attack bomber in 1945 with a 1,000 nm combat radius leading directly to the A-3 Skywarrior and later the A-5 Vigilante.  U.S. Aircraft Carriers, An Illustrated Design History, by Dr. Norman Friedman, 1983, pages 240 and 241.

[5] The F/A-18 does what it was designed to do, the problem is the carrier air wing lost the supporting cast of aircraft types.

[6] Formal Joint air refueling operations between the Air Force and Navy started in the early 1970s.  A 1988 memorandum of understanding (MOU) established joint air -refueling concepts.

[7] Congressional Research Service report RL32910,  Air Force Aerial Refueling Methods:
Flying Boom versus Hose-and-Drogue, by Christopher Bolkcom pages 2 and 3, June 5, 2006.

[8] The KC-10 is configured to allow the alternate simultaneous use of either the flying boom or the hose and drogue if equipped with Wing Air Refueling Pods (WARP).  This does not solve the issue of the services using different fuel types.  Only about one out of every three USAF KC-10s had Wing Air Refueling Pods (WARP), and these are low priority procurement items for the USAF.  Naval Air Refueling Needs Deferred in Air Force Tanker Plan by Hunter C. Keeter, Sea Power magazine, April 2004.


[10] GAO found that the average age of the KC-135 fleet was 35 years back in 2003.  GAO-03-938T, page 4.

[11] A combat grouping of aircraft with different capabilities that are launched together to perform a single attack mission

[12] The C-130 is the largest aircraft to land and take off from aircraft carriers.  In October and November 1963, a KC-130F (BuNo 149798) made 21 landings and take-offs on the USS Forrestal.  It is important to note that the C-130 essentially shut down normal flight deck operations and was (remains) unsuitable for normal carrier operations.

[13] The Matterhorn Missions, by John Correll, pages 62-65, AIR FORCE Magazine, March 2009.

[14] Designed properly, a USN tanker could receive fuel from a USAF tanker via the boom, while also fueling two Navy aircraft.  In the case of a KC-10, or KC-46A, the possibility of fueling the Navy tanker (via the flying boom) and four tactical aircraft via hose and reel (two from the USN tanker, and two from the USAF tanker, is a possibility.

[16] The Douglas AGM-48 Skybolt Air-Launched Ballistic Missile from the 1950s suggests one possible weapon. It was very heavy weighing almost 11,000 pounds.


Mr. Bustamante is a retired naval officer who served the majority of his career as a Naval Special Warfare Officer, but also as a Surface Warfare Officer and Foreign Area Officer.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in Systems Engineering.  He also holds a Master of Science degree in Defense Analysis (Operations Research) from the Naval Postgraduate School in MontereyCalifornia. After retiring from the Navy, Mr. Bustamante worked for the legislative branch as an auditor and analyst, as a civil servant with the United States Department of State, and also in the private sector as an analyst in information technology project management.


  1. In reality, there is no money for this due to other priorities, but there are lots of Marine KC-130s that are used for transport instead of air refuel support for naval aviation. Demand the Marines get back in the naval game with:

    1. A two aircraft det from Cherry Point permanently based at Sigonella, Italy.

    2. A two aircraft det from Cherry Point UDP rotated to Djibouti in East Africa.

    3. A two aircraft det from Miramar UDP rotated to Bahrain.

    4. A two aircraft det from Miramar UDP rotated to Darwin.

    5. A two aircraft det from Iwakuni permanently based at Anderson AFB on Guam.

    6. A two aircraft det from Iwakuni permanently based at Kadena AFB on Okinawa.

    This is all doable within a year at little cost and would suddenly boost all naval ops worldwide.

    1. KC-130s are certainly useful, but they really are not going t provide upwards of 2 million gallons of fuel required for a 60 aircraft strike package, so they really do not address the carrier task force tanker issue, at least not in the context of a major war.

      I do not have the data in hand, but I suspect the KC-135/10/46 are a more cost effective solution than the KC-130 in to supporting fixed wing naval aviation in the COIN wars we are now fighting.

      The problem comes if we need to fight a real war.


    2. A KC-130J can offload four times more than an F/A-18E. The idea is to get these aircraft working with the carriers on a regular basis, so more can arrive in wartime. Since they are short runway aircraft, they should be able to quietly operate from forward civilian airfields like the in Philippines for a few days at a time to support a carrier op, while the carriers remain safer several hundred NMs away. The carrier launches a strike group that meets up with them along the way to top off.

      Once again, this is something that can be done now at almost no cost. Then we can go back to selling other ideas that cost billons of dollars.

    3. On the KC-130J, I just do not see that it is the answer (even the latest "J" model) and even then, it is hard to argue in favor of the KC-130 over larger, more effective KC-135/10/46 tankers.

      1. In the scenario I used, it will still take about *35* KC-130s to do the job - if they can operate within the enemy A2/AD defenses. The max fuel load LM quotes for the KC-130 J is a hefty 61,364 pounds.

      2. Get out the chart and start drawing range rings in the Pacific Rim and reality starts settling in. Cadena and most U.S. airfields in and around the first island chain are well within DF-21 missile range.

      3. None of our tanker aircraft are particularly fast, but the KC-130 is almost 200 knots slower than KC-135/10/46 – that could be an issue. Another shameless plug for the old A-3D – they reportedly could approach Mach 1 in a dive). The KC-130J also has a lower operating altitude than KC-135/10/46.

      It isn’t that the KC-130 is bad, it’s just that once you start relying on land based tankers, the KC-130 is pack minus compared to other aerial tankers.


    4. It takes about 3.5 KC-130Js to equal the fuel transfer load of a KC-46A (61,364 pounds vs 212,000 pounds respectively).

      A KC-130J is ~$71 million (unit cost) versus a KC-46A ~$188 million (unit cost) – so it will cost about $248 million to buy the KC-130Js. And the crew requirements (manpower dominates total ownership costs) for the KC-130J fleet will be proportionally larger.

      On the plus side, the enemy will have to expend more effort to destroy those 3.45 KC-130s, and there *may* be some practical differences in airfield usage. A C-130 can land on much smaller airfield (empty), but it still will need a 3,000’ runway with a full fuel load.

      Once you start talking about a half dozen KC-46As or 20-30 KC-130s loading 1.5 to 2 million gallons of fuel the idea of using jungle airfields to support major combat operations becomes a joke.

      So to buy a shorter ranged, slower aircraft, with less flexibility (the KC-46A can refuel B-1/2/52 bombers – the KC-130J cannot) will cost the tax payer ~32% more up front, and much more in personnel and O&M.


    5. I agree with you, but there are no KC-135/10/46 assigned to naval aviation, and none planned. Since the navy operates 737 jets as P-8s and C-40s, a 737 tanker would be nice too.

      But I'm talking about what is doable now. If war breaks out in the Pacific, the Marines will only do airfield and port defense for the first year or two, so let's use their KC-130s to fight!

    6. It is very likely that the most effective solution is to decommission the KC-130 squadrons, sell off the aircraft, and buy new KC-46As!

      If the choice is land-based tankers then the KC-10/46/135 is the answer and frankly is a dominant solution by every metric (performance/cost/schedule).

      The KC-46A is entering production now, if the Navy really wants them, it could buy them – the USAF and the manufacturer will be happy. And the Navy has a history of operating USAF/USAAC aircraft like B-24s.

      Pull out a chart or globe; look at where our airbases are, remove the bases inside range of long range weapons from mainland china from consideration, then measure the distance from the remaining bases (e.g. Guam) to the middle of the first island chain.

      If you actually do this you will see the implausibility of what you are asking the KC-130s to do, and that is before asking a 360 knot turboprop aircraft to fly into a state of the art A2/AD defense zone.


  2. The Israelis are working on doubling the range of their F-35A's with drop tank and conformal fuel tank modifications. It looks like their ultimate goal is conformal tanks that would preserve most of the stealth.

    Consider how this problem changes IF the F-35 strike package can double its range and preserve sufficient stealth. Then only the last 600 mile leg needs refueling. With a CV tanker meeting your specs we are talking about approximately 1 tanker for each strike aircraft - or about 30 tankers to bring the aircraft back over the carriers. A task force of 2 CVN's might be able to carry out the strike.

    1. I meant to say 1 tanker for each pair of strike aircraft to travel 600 miles. At 600 miles the tanker would deliver 40000 lbs of fuel with each plane consuming 30 lbs/mi.

  3. Also...having refueled out of a KC130 before (and KC135, KC10, S3s and an Omega Tanker) the KC130 kind of sucks for fighter attack aircraft due to the slow tanking speeds. We had a hard time in the basket (worse than the Iron Maiden) because of the KC130 speed and the alt that they transfer at. Simply a prop plane vs jet issue.

  4. Mr. Bustamante has written an interesting piece for sure. I have comments. Only have a few moments though.

    Related story from USNI:

    The US-3A discussed in his matrix needs correction. Not really important to his argument though. A single prototype 157996 was built by LM for the Navy. It did not have ASW systems and was a demonstrator, as discussed. I flew in it at VS-41 where it was used as a trainer in late 1970’s into the 80’s! What made it unique over the later S-3B "buddy store" configuration (used ~1989-2008) is that it was a center-line drogue system like the KA-6D and very easy to tank off of for the receivers. The error that needs to be corrected is that the total fuel carried in transfer/bomb bay/external tanks came to 19,940lbs JP, 16540 of which is transferrable (not 29000). If you figure a burn rate of around 2200 lbs per hour for the Viking you can figure out what fuel you can give how far away, etc. ect. Also keep in mind an S-3 stripped down to essentials weighs around 25K and its max carrier takeoff weight is ~50K. Do the math from there.
    The article itself discusses mission tanking and depicts little discrimination between big wing (USAF generally) land based (certainly a consideration) and “organic” (embarked on carrier) carrier tanking for mission (strike/fighter,etc) and the always required and “sweet” (operable) overhead tanker airborne during any flight ops. There are many caveats unconsidered in the article and as a result lacking in fidelity. A better way to approach this analysis is to take holistic view of Navy tactical tanking. IE- Big wing land based or tactical organic? Overhead tanking or mission tanking? Both? The last item is important because an overhead and mission tanker cannot be the same aircraft for that set of sorties/ airplan.
    Basically, Mr. Bustamante’s options/recommendations 3 through 5 are commendable and should be considered.
    My issues with his #1 recommendation are many. Much as I could like the A-6 as a truck, those A-6’s remaining, and not made into a reef, are unsupportable with turbo jet engines long term, their fatigue life remaining is problematic- yes, some got re-winged but it wasn’t an effective SLEP. This idea could not be considered immediate by any stretch of the imagination. Many other reasons I don’t have time to describe. Gee, why not re-use the S-3B or even the LM proposed KC-3 last year? As an alternative, there is also a basic KS-3B proposal from the early 1990’s out there that boosts total fuel carried out to above 22K lbs for the S-3B.
    The number two recommendation brings a rifle to a knife fight- not always a bad idea but it is overkill. Big time. Long term- you bet- development time alone for the vehicle will take 10 years starting yesterday!

    What do I know about Navy tactical tanking? I have flown in that US-3A, been re-fueled by KA-3, KA-6, A-6E/A-7E and S-3B buddy stored equipped aircraft, and refueled off of KC-135, KC-10 and Marine C-130s worldwide and from the carrier. I have also given hundreds of thousands of pounds of JP from the S-3 to the A-6, F-14, F-18, EA-6, A-7 and a couple foreign jets. I have also been involved in both the daily overhead/strike mission tanking planning for several deployments. Nothing unusual for my time but I am informed open source and have a decent memory.

    BTW, I like the Marine C-130 idea. Anything to force multiply even if they are land based you can count on the Marines to be there where you need them unlike the USAF.... re the Fighter Attack Comment re speed- get over it and take the fuel..

    1. B2,

      Thanks for the comments. As you know, the actual fuel transfer load is akin to "combat radius" and many factors apply including configuration, speed, loiter time, altitude, and of course range. This is my nod to using open source data!

      The 29k transfer load quoted was for the single prototype of the dedicated tanker version of the S-3 known as the KS-3A/B. Potentially confusing the KS-3A/B with the KA-3 – who came up with this nomenclature?

      For the generic S-3 configured as a tanker, I will readily accept your figure over open source data, but in the overall analysis really does not change: large strike packages, operating at long-range will burn a lot of fuel and are massively dependent upon land based tankers.


    2. Of course, but then you do understand the value of navy independent organic navy mission tankers vice usaf landbased tanker support which is ops normal for
      strikes conducted since 1991. A peer adversary is a different animal and in that I was attempting to answer the Stingray RFI as per the AirBoss article link. An S-3 basic at can be brought down to around 25k and the max cat is 52.5. That means an S-3, as is, no power upgrades or structural improvements. A pretty flexible and forgiving tanker for getting any strike package a lot further than by superhornet tanker alone. It just needs to launch earlier. As an overhead tanker it knows no peer and that includes the kA-3 or KA-6 for efficiency and bring back. Remember we aren't planning the Doolittle raid, rather a day to day repeatable and efficient tanker plan to support strike and fleet air defense.

    3. B2,

      Any legacy aircraft that can be returned to service as an effective tanker to fill the short-term gap is fine by me.


  5. I love this post. It effectively puts forth ideas I've had in my head for awhile. If Naval strike is going to remain relevant, and our billion dollar CVN's worth the effort and treasure, then they need more range. With more range they still retain their flexibility of being onsite for ground attack when needed and control the ocean when needed.

    To get the needed range they need aircraft with more combat radius and better mission tanking.

    Between this and B2's comments, it sounds like there could be a modified 6 point plan?

    1) Reactivate the S3's and restore them to tanker configuration carrying as much fuel as possible. (Maybe, and here is where my inexperience chimes in, keep the Hornet buddy tankers for overhead tanking?, while the S3's do Mission tanking as much as they can?)

    2) Long term, the Navy needs to procure a very large, carrier capable tanker aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of 80,000 pounds or larger (b2, I see your point. But I think its at worth least trying. And given development times lets start now).

    3-5 remain unchanged?

    6) I'm willing to try the marine KC-130 option. If it costs us little its worth implementing for the gain.

    To a certain extent, given budgets and development times, we are where we are and have what we have. Things like re-activating and optimizing a KC-3 would help. CFT's for the F-35 could help if they can remain stealthy (but as Alt points out, how much more weight of fuel can it carry effectively?). I think we should do as much as we can now, but now that we've seen the problem, lets plan for the long term as well. I think CVN's with the right airwing can be very valuable in a near peer or peer war.

    Without the right airwing they won't be valuable in the near peer war, and are too expensive for the low end stuff.

    1. Jim,

      Re your #1- Recommend an unmanned S-3 because unmanned appears to be the way to go. IE what I am saying is the S-3 airframes from AMARG become the MQ-25 Stingray "first increment", until your #2 comes on line after being developed, prototyped tested and fielded (~10-15 years)

      When fielded the S-3 Stingray would make a low risk fix to cover many airplan events during the day and night for overhead tanking that are literally killing the F-18 SuperHornet's fatigue life. By default freeing up more StrikeFighter to do what they do best. The SuperHornet itself is an excellent "mission tanker" for events requiring range because they have the speed to push out ahead and transfer fuel to the attackers at speed and then return to ship. Because all SuperHornets are already "plumbed" to be "buddy store" tankers the ability to do either tanker mission remains inherent for them and provides all kinds of "force multiplier scenarios" for the carrier airwing with all those potential "hoses" available.

      Specifically, a basic S-3B from AMARG to be re-used as the increment 1 StingRay platform/vehicle, could be modified fairly easily to carry 20-25K lbs of internal/external fuel, perhaps a center drogue system like the 1970's prototype KS-3A in lieu of a buddy store or maybe with a buddy store to provide "sweet tanker" redundancy.. BTW, The S-3B can carry the Sargent Fletcher buddy store currently in use on the SuperHornet. By then trading off fuel weight for "missionized CO/CO pallets" you could have the perfect proven platform for conducting unmanned ISR with proven anti-surface standoff weapons like Harpoon and laser/ISR Maverick that could actually inflict damage on enemy warships.

      Your #2 above, could also leverage off the lessons learned with this S-3 increment 1 Stingray development to help implement that larger, more stealthy air vehicle you and others propose.

  6. I prefer the KISS principle, so here's a novel idea: why not use drop tanks for what they were designed for, i.e. drop them before entering enemy airspace?

    That eliminates the concerns around detectability and performance impact. Combined with CFTs it's a much simpler solution than a bespoke 80,000lb tanker.

    According to my rough back-of-the-envelope math, you can extend the radius of current naval fighters by approx. 150nm with CFTs and another 200nm with buddy refuelling on the outbound leg (1 buddy tanker per 4 strikers). Add that on top of current combat radiuses of 600-750nm (depending on altitude profile and # of drop tanks) and that puts you well above the 900nm required in this scenario, without any significant innovation.


    1. A better solution is a 900+ NM bomber with standoff munitions...

      What happens when the strike package gets bounced by enemy land based air 800 miles from the carrier?

      The escorting fighters have given up several missile hard points for fuel tanks (a disadvantage), and now have an ugly choice: 1) fight at a maneuver disadvantage by retaining the fuel tanks, or 2) drop the tanks, win the engagement and pray that they can somehow find a big tanker (twice) on the way home.

      360 NM radius + 150 NM (tanks) + 200 NM (buddy refueling (need 100 aircraft) = 710 NM (short) crash in ocean

      Also, the F/A-18 buddy tanker is not effective for the reasons discussed in the post.


    2. What is sort of ironic here is that the navy could do that back in the 80's with organic tanking, per Hornet air wing. IE Kamchatka/kola the sec nav then as you may not remember

    3. Along the lines of what HK is saying, here’s a potential solution: F-35C with adaptive cycle engine and external drop tanks that would detach along with their pylon, leaving the F-35C wing clean and stealthy. Punch off the drop tanks before entering enemy radar coverage.

      600nm combat radius starting point
      30% range increase (claimed) for adaptive cycle engine
      30% increase in fuel capacity from drop tanks
      => 1000nm combat radius

      (yeah, I know it’s not strictly additive like that)

      Now your strike package is 12 self-supporting F-35Cs, and you’ve greatly reduced your need for tanking (carrier- or land-based).

      Does anyone know why an integrated drop tank / pylon hasn’t been pursued for the F-35? The benefit would be great, and the technical issues seem very solvable.

      Perhaps that’s what the Israelis are up to, as in the article Anonymous shared above.


    4. BTL,

      If it works great.

      I am very skeptical about claims of 30% improvement in efficiency or power given the relative maturity of aircraft engine technology.

      I am particularly skeptical about claims of 12 F-35s doing the job of a 60 aircraft strike package.

      I am not trying to duplicate the USAF, but countries building A2/AD defenses are hardening ordinary military facilities to a high degree. That flys in the face of the small F-35 weapon bay. The physics of ordnance carriage in internal bomb bays is problematic.

      I am not a stealth guy, and if I were I could not talk about it, but the assumption has always been that stealth relies on EW from other platforms.


    5. GAB - all fair points. But even if the 30% claim doesn’t quite pan out, an enhanced F-35C still seems to me like the best hope of addressing the fundamental range challenge in order to keep the carrier battle group relevant.

      UCLASS could have offered another way to address the problem, but unfortunately that got neutered by the Navy manned fighter mafia.

      The other clean-sheet aircraft designs we all dream of seem unlikely to materialize.


    6. The 30% comes mainly from operating the engine in a different configuration. While both commercial and fighter engines are very advanced, they focus on two fundamentally different areas. The adaptive cycle engine is an attempt to bridge the focus of the two very different engine designs.

      Commercial jet engines focus on high efficiency low velocity thrust while fighter aircraft engines focus on high velocity thrust. High velocity thrust is needed for acceleration at speed which is something that commercial airliners aren't ever required to do but is critical for military engines in actual combat. Outside of combat the high velocity thrust provides no advantage.

      So the goal of the adaptive engines is to operate much like a classical turbo fan most of the time with the resultant increase in efficiency and then dynamically switch to turbo jet operation when high velocity thrust is required. At a fundamental level it is just a matter of changing where the mass flow is in the engine (core vs bypass).

      In addition, some of that 30% efficiency improvement comes from much comes from much greater use of Ceramic matrix composites (CMC) than in existing military engines including the F135/136. GE's AETD, for instance, uses CMC extensively throughout the entire hot section vs almost no use of CMC in either the F135/136. The next gen commercial engines are all heavily leveraging CMC in the hot sections (LEAP and GE9x).

    7. You are correct sir. A land-based squadron of naval bombers can perform the carrier strike role at 10% the cost with almost no risk:

      But let us not upset the gravy train with sanity.

    8. If your criteria is cost and risk, then a missile can do the job even better and at lower cost. After all, the real cost of a weapon is not what it cost to buy, but what it costs to maintain and operate - particularly manpower.


    9. If commercial cargo aircraft could be modified to deploy both bombs and cruise missiles then that would be an interesting option which could perform in COIN and peer competitor wars.

    10. "You are correct sir. A land-based squadron of naval bombers can perform the carrier strike role at 10% the cost with almost no risk:"

      The article you reference is one of the most unrealistic pieces of writing I've read. It borders on fantasy fiction.

      Making a claim of 10% of the cost just ignores all sorts of reality. Please don't make claims like that unless you're prepared to back them up with data. I will remove future unsubstantiated and unrealistic claims. This blog is based on data and logic.

    11. "What is sort of ironic here is that the navy could do that back in the 80's with organic tanking, per Hornet air wing. IE Kamchatka/kola the sec nav then as you may not remember"

      Wasnt the Kola/Kamchatka a strike goal for the CVN's? (I'm assuming they thought we might lose some).

      Those missions really fascinate me. Because they were, for their day, as deadly of an A2/AD environment as we have now. How did the Navy plan to crack that nut? What did they have for organic mission tanking? Or did they need it with the A6?

      They had organic mission tanking for that? What did they use?

    12. Jim,

      Why, the airwing/ship/BG team used what we had organically- KA-6D tankers, buddy store equipped A-7E and A-6E aircraft, and later in 1989, the S-3B buddy store equipped aircraft. Heck even the ES-3A carried the buddy store! Alternately, please remember we deployed with more strike aircraft then and those aircraft had significantly longer range of course. Basically, those exercise missions against the USSR were paramount for the US Navy then and were really pushed by Secretary Lehman, himself an A-6 pilot.

      Of course there are lessons learned there of use today, I brought it up just to mention it, but most Admirals (aviators/shoes/sub dudes)in power today weren't on active duty then or if they were ,they didn't pay attention it seems.

      Re your: "deadly of an A2/AD environment as we have now" Roger that...

      In our world the USAF land based big wing tankers were called in AFTER Air superiority/supremacy was declared and strike/fighter sortie generation became the mission. Of course this the 500+ ship Navy of the time (1980's) on its way to a 600 ship Navy...

  7. I liked the article and agree with the suggestions. However, given the fuel load and range requirements, I think the wingspan of a flying wing or blended wing will exceed what you can operate from a carrier.

    For example, take the A-12 Avenger II the Navy tried to field 25 years ago. It's flying wing design with a wingspan of 70 feet, 6 feet larger than the F-14. It had a range of 800 nm on 21,322 lbs of internal fuel and a payload of 5,160 lbs.

    For the sake of argument, let's assume all of the payload is transferable fuel. At 600 nm, I estimate it could offload 11,000 lb of fuel and keep enough fuel return to the carrier. A tanker optmized design might get you another 5,000 lbs. But, that's still well short of the goal.

    Flying and blended wing designs generally have larger wingspans than traditional body/wing/tail designs. To carry that much fuel might require a wingspan of 150 feet or more. Not something easily compatible with flying or landing on a carrier.

    I think the traditional design like the A-6 or A-3 is the way to go.

    1. There is nothing inherently wrong (or right) about blended wing or flying wing designs. Both are mature design approaches.

      The A-12 failed due to management issues.

      for comparison, the A-3D had a 72 foot wingspan, a max take-off weight of 82,000 pounds, and was (sometimes) flown off of Midway class carriers.


    2. The X-47B has a wingspan of 62 feet and a max takeoff weight of 44,567 lbs. When you scale that up to an 80,000 lb bird, the wingspan will well exceed what you can operate from a carrier.

    3. Absolutely incorrect. GAB just told you that the A-3 Skywarrior had a max takeoff weight of 82,000 lbs and a wingspan of 72 ft and operated from carriers from the 1960's on up to 1991.

      If you mean an exact and literal scaling of the X-47, that's idiotic.

      The Wright Flyer had a wingspan of 40 ft and a weight of 605 lb. If we scaled that up to 80,000 lb it would have a wingspan of 5,289 ft. But we didn't do that. Instead, we figured out how to routinely operate an 80,000 lb aircraft from carriers.

      Put some thought into your comments! I expect better from my readers.

    4. From what I've read the Vigilante had a max takeoff weight of ~79K lbs, a wingspan of 52 feet, a top speed of around Mach 2 (high), and a combat radius of over 1000NM (!!).


      so caveat emptor on the statistics.

      Dimensions: Length 76 ft 6 in (23.35 m); Height 19 ft 4.75 in (5.91 m); Wing Span 53 ft 0 in (16.15 m) open, 42 ft 0 in (12.8 m) folded; Wing Area 700 sq ft (65.03 sq m) 700?

      Maximum Take-off 79,588 lb (36,133 kg)

      Combat radius (attack) 1,289 miles

      A plane like that, with stand off weapons, sounds like it could be very useful in the pacific. With LRASM its an anti ship platform. With long range air launched cruise missiles its good for hitting A2/AD.

    5. CNO, For someone who admonishes others for personal attacks, you should heed your own advice. And, if that gets me banned, then so be it.

      I never meant scaling is linear. But, let me offer a counter example to illustrate my point. Let's compare the XB-49 and B-47, contemporaries of their day.

      Let's compare the two.

      XB-49 B-47
      Wingspan (ft) 172 116
      Dry Weight (lbs) 88,442 79,074
      Loaded Weight (lbs) 133,559 133,030
      Combat Range (miles) 1,615 2,013
      Payload (lb) 32,000 20,000

      The XB-49 and B-47 are similar is weight and range. Yet, the wingspan of the XB-49 is 56 feet longer than the B-47.

      Furthermore, Aviation Week reported on bigger versions of the X-47B, reporting, "At the same time, Northrop openly discussed a range of longer-winged X-47C configurations, the largest being a 172-ft.-span design with two engines derived from General Electric’s CF34 and capable of carrying a 10,000-lb. weapon load."

      You're not going to get flying/blended wing design as the author described to operate off a carrier because of the wingspan for such an aircraft is just too large.

    6. Walter, the general quality of comments on the blog has fallen sharply of late and I'm endeavoring to bring it back up. Two of the problem areas are unresearched (or factually incorrect) statements and argumentative statements that attempt to find a single, minor exception to a generalized statement. These kinds of statements contribute nothing and do not further the discussion.

      To state that a flying wing of the requisite size can't fly from a carrier is ignoring all the evidence. To suggest, as proof, that a direct scaling (yes, you said that) shows that it can't be done is to suggest a ridiculous design path that would never be done.

      Let's look at a flying wing that actually exists, the B-2. It's got a 172 ft wingspan and max takeoff weight of 376,000 lbs. If scaled down (you suggested scaling up so scaling down must also be okay) to 80,000 lbs, the wingspan would be 36 ft - small for a carrier aircraft. Aside from disproving your statement, this does not prove the validity of a flying wing any more than scaling up a X-47 disproves it. This simply proves that direct scaling is not a design-viable approach.

      Does any of this prove that a flying wing of the desired size can or cannot operate from a carrier? No. Therefore, this entire line of discussion is pointless. That's what I'm trying to eliminate from the blog - argumentative or poorly researched/reasoned comments.

      If your opinion was that flying wings wouldn't work for the desired application, you should research it a bit before commenting. That means checking out other similar designs and pondering the wisdom and utility of scaling in aircraft design.

      Finally, treat this blog as a learning opportunity and the comments as discussions rather than arguments. Don't be afraid to learn and admit a mis-statement. So many people want to argue rather than learn. If enforcing my standards mean that I only get a few good comments rather than a lot of worthless ones, I'm good with that.

      I hope this helps you understand what I'm trying to accomplish and I hope you'll see this a challenge to raise your personal level of commentary and help me raise the overall level of discourse on naval matters.

    7. Walt,

      The B-1 has a max wingspan just about the same as a C-130, though it can of course sweep them back to about half the wingspan.

      We know that the "Bone" is not going to land its svelt 300,000 pound airframe on a carrier, but using your scaling, a "mini B-1" 1/2 the size could.


  8. Investing in an organic tanker would simply be treating the symptom and not the root cause.

    The real problem is lack of diversity in the air wings embarked aircraft. The decision to do everything with Hornets vice specialized aircraft was a very dumb idea.

    The Hornets a good bird. But its not as good an interceptor as F-14. It's not as good a sea control aircraft as the S-3. And it can't carry same load to same range as the A-6.

    Converting P-8s to tankers would also be a very bad idea considering how organic air ASW capabilities have deteriorated with demise of S-3

    1. Peace Dividend. I think everyone will agree with you but the decision was budget driven. As we "pivot" to Asia, It is clear that we need greater strike reach. This comes from longer range aircraft (F/A-XX?), longer range weapons, and survivable (within the bubble) tanking. I'm not sold that a low survivability tanker is the solution here. I think that is why MQ-25 is going the path that it is on.

  9. How about marry 'carrier deck only with super tanker', and have these floating fuel stop(s) loitering 1000 miles back of CSG, and KC-130 tankers re-fuel from them (is 400 meter long enough for takeoff/landing? is 60m beam wide enough for 2-3 plane temporary plane parking?)

    1. Do some homework before you post this kind of comment. Wiki lists the takeoff distance for a KC-130 at normal weights. Do some research and come back and answer your own question.

    2. CNO,

      With all due respect,

      " [12] The C-130 is the largest aircraft to land and take off from aircraft carriers. In October and November 1963, a KC-130F (BuNo 149798) made 21 landings and take-offs on the USS Forrestal.."

    3. There you go. You've answered your own question.

    4. You know what? That is still too costly & complicated.

      Make large refueller seaplane. Land & Pull up next to a fueling ship. Gas up, and go.

    5. Have you done your homework? What's the heaviest seaplane that has ever taken off? The drag on seaplanes is enormous. Hint, look to some of the Soviet seaplane or ground effect aircraft.

      I want you to stop dumping random ideas on the blog without doing even a bit of research! Be better than that.

      You think you have a kernel of an idea, here. That's great. Now, before you post another comment, think it through. Do some research. Game it out. Find historical or current examples to support your idea.

      Present a finished product! Your credibility will thank you.

    6. Our company product turn around time is two years. So, I'm used to brainstorm and let everyone nay or yea the ideas. Plus, there are always someone who knows more about something who can pick up any glint of idea and runs with it.

      Anyway, I'm using Chinese amphibious plane (AG600) as baseline. It can haul 12 tonnes (26,000lb, rounded up to 30,000lb) of water for firefighting, max.speed at 350mph, and range of 3500 miles.

      That's enough fuel to fill up two hungry F-18s. And these seaplanes can be everywhere, include forward deploying (with Virginia sub or fake-container ship converted to haul fuel) near Chinese shore.

      1. If carrier is too crowded and land bases are not available. Try seaplane (and design a better one).

      2. If CSG attracts too much attention, don't be where it is. Have refuler planes loading somewhere else, away from PLA attention (or stretching it).

      3. It is not a full solution, but some smart naval logistic guy(s) should be able to weave them together.

    7. OK, good start. That's a good example aircraft. Now consider the numbers for a supporting a long range, large strike package as the author described. With a 1:2 tanker:F-18 support ratio we would need 73 of these aircraft to support the described strike! Does that seem feasible to you?

      You've found a candidate aircraft, now think through the actual mission and resulting numbers, logistics, survivability, etc.

    8. Tim,
      I have thought along similar lines - also, see end note [4] above.

      The issue is not so much about carrier size, it is about allowing for really large aircraft wing spans.

      The flush deck carrier was central to the debate that led to the A-3 referenced in the endnote - it essentially removes constraints about wingspan.

      The issue with really large aircraft (eg: the C-130) is not so much the flush deck and ship control, the problem that they block the flight deck. They also are all but impossible to put in a hanger at sea.

      Working through these issues, you could potentially land aircraft like C-130s or the YC-14 on deck. A tanker that size really would resolve naval air refueling issues! More importantly, it would allow for some amazing options to employ Army and USAF units from naval ships. It would also provide logistics sustainability for that OMFTS never dreamed of (see:


    9. So was one of the thoughts building a carrier around the C-130 as almost a tanker/COD Logistics ship?

      Could we afford that?

      I know the C-130 can take off from a CV... but can it do it with any useful load?

      Is it fast enough to do mission tanking?

    10. Seaplane,

      Survivability: As long as these planes are spread out, don't be in the vicinity of CSG, PLA can't/won't afford/spend C4ISR and defense allocation to hunt low-individual-value target(s) bobbing about on the vast water 500 miles out. Give crew couple machine guns or handheld rockets to keep away nosy fishing boat.

      Logistic: CSG is 1000 miles out. Seaplane fueling ship is 1500 miles out (fueling ships are too slow to keep up with carrier/burke, so the stay back anyway). Seaplane themselves are parked 500 miles out. For the strike force, seaplane will be the last gas stop going in, and the first coming out. And they can meet as close to mainland shore as adventurous as allowed.

      Number: How much is a bare bone refuler seaplane ($10M a pop?) China is a 1-in-100 years adversary. These planes don't really need 10-20 years life span; they just have to be enough to serve an intense but non-duration conflict. 100 planes at $10-20M = $1B (or, $2B). That's between 3-6 F35s. In war, you fight the Chinese; in peace, you fight USAF for the extra dole.

      That's it. No tanker-carrier conversion. Keep CSG air-wing configuration as is. This is not the full solution, but an option to open up all sorts of options.

    11. Jim and GAB,

      I rethought about tanker-carrier and C130. It costs to marry tanker+flight deck. It costs to 'stiffen up' C-130 for carrier operation. And all 70 strike planes can't drink at the same time. (and we really can't go back to the good ol'days, no big money, and can't fight peacetime Navy inertia/status quo).

      So I went with 'cheap and numerous' seaplanes. All 70 strike force planes can drink at the same time. And these seaplanes can be peppered thru out route-area like local gas pumps for planned and emergency fueling.

  10. An interesting sidebar to this discussion: by all accounts, in order to hit the $550MM per plane price target, the B-21 will be significantly smaller than the B-2. Presumably the B-21’s range will be significantly shorter, and its need for tanking support greater.

    Despite the tyranny of distance in the Pacific theater, the USN has made decisions to consciously sacrifice reach, and now the USAF may be doing the same.

    One would hope that the USAF, USN, and allies can develop a workable plan for tanker support of current and future aircraft types for all likely mission scenarios.


    1. How is it we were able to create long(er) ranged, affordable aircraft before? The A6, The A3, the A5....all populated decks. Was the budget that much greater?

      For goodness sakes, the Navy's cut of the defence budget is what, 160 billion/year? Maybe if we weren't building 14B carriers with arresting systems that don't work and one off radars maybe we could afford a better airwing. And If the price of stealth is so high that you can't afford to make it long ranged, then in the Pacific does a short legged platform even matter, no matter how much tech you put in or on it? Because you'll either have to get its launching area (CV or island) within range of the enemy or use tankers that will be vulnerable.

      Are tankers that hard to find and kill?

    2. @Jim Whall
      Depends on how they are used. Far behind enemy lines, not so much, but close up they will need escorts. Their performance is comparable to a loaded civilian aircraft more than a fighter.

      I'd agree that the B21 will have to be smaller to hit a 500 million target, or other compromises will have to be made. To be honest, I don't see the B21 meeting that 500 million unit cost target. Far more likely it will be well over a billion and a lot worse performing than advertised.

  11. Another option might be a seaplane tanker. It would have to be serviced at sea by a dedicated ship. Such a ship would be a seaplane tender, perhaps a modified LSD-like vessel. Think USS Curtiss or similar.

    Regardless, a tanker with folding wings should be considered for carrier use.

    On that note, there is a reason why I put an emphasis on high fuel fraction for combat aircraft - it gives the option of sustained supercruise or a wide combat radius. It also reduces reliance on tankers a lot.

    The other is that combat aircraft should have a good L/D (lift drag ratio). The F-35 is an example of an aircraft with a decent fuel fraction, but a terrible L/D ratio, so its range is hobbled.

    Large aircraft, all other things being equal, do better than small aircraft, but it comes at the expense of cost and for fighters, dogfight performance.

    1. Alt;

      It sounds like you're saying to have good L/D ratio and fuel fraction the plane is going to be large?

      I guess I don't have a problem with large carrier aircraft. Yes, I think that its going to give them a certain disadvantage dogfighting. The Flanker series seems to have a great fuel fraction, and maybe have some disadvantages in dogfighting compared to an F-16. But...

      I think for carrier air, and what we envisage a CV doing, payload and range > strict dogfighting ability (and cost, *to an extent*). I like the navalized flankers mix of attributes for a CV even now.

      And while I'm not the one to say 'missiles eliminate the merge!' I do think that better BVR missiles and HOBS missiles can mitigate some of the disadvantage at the merge.

      At the very least you can train for these things. The Wildcat wasn't the dogfighter the Zero was but we came up with things like the thatch weave.

    2. Yep, need both fuel fraction and L/D ratio. Otherwise, expect a relatively short-ranged aircraft.

      All other things being equal, a larger aircraft will be able to go further due to less drag, but it comes at the expense of acquisition cost, operating cost, and dogfight performance (although perhaps speed and endurance could offset this somewhat).

      The Zero had some serious design compromises, especially to survivability. A well designed modern aircraft is not going to have those weaknesses. The Wildcat could also outroll a Zero, something unlikely to happen with a larger vs smaller aircraft in a dogfight, although it is possible the Wildcat's advantage of being able to outdive a Zero will be retained.

      A big challenge for the larger aircraft though is that it is more likely to be outnumbered, all other things being equal. It's not a tradeoff too with just dogfight performance, it's a tradeoff with numbers.

      Larger aircraft tend to be proportionately more expensive to buy and operate. That makes it hard too to have a core of skilled pilots with enough training hours to send to battle.

  12. Let us explore this:

    *Assume that carrier environment limits aircraft size
    *Assume physics limits fuel fraction requirements
    *Assume the threat environment requires that we dedicate at least some of the airframe to 'performance' or 'capability' for survival reasons.

    So we can not go much larger than the practical size limit for Fighter Planes (currently we build far below that), there is probably more room to go higher in terms of fuel fractions by sacrificing capability and performance and durability and so on and so forward. But there is a limit to that, go to far and you are left with something that is blind, death, dumb and stupid, it can't run, hide, climb or turn, it can't outsmart or trick the enemy or avoid the enemy. It is going to be defenseless, and it is going to get whacked.

    In the end relying on a tanker of similar size to try and make up for range deficiencies is likely going to be a difficult, expensive, and not very effective solution at fixing range deficits. Even if we do every trick in the book from staggering flights from the strike fighters and increasing sortie rates of the tankers to improve the ratios of tankers to fighters I think it would be difficult to try and double the range of a fighter with combat loading. You would still need a high tanker ratio, and it would drastically increase the rate of fuel burnt by the air wing.

    Contrary to that if we come back to fuel fractions and fuel efficiency, look at how the F16 compares to the F15, how the latest gripen compares to the F16 for range. Sure these smaller planes suffer when we start talking about throw weight, but it's impressive, and think what a dual engine F16, a modern equivelant of an F15 could do in terms of range. Look at the throw weight of an F111 compared to an F35, it's several times the plane that the F35 is, does the work of multiple 35s in the strike role at any payload, goes out further.

    A modern day analogue to the F111 would wipe the floor with the F111 as literally everything from the materials to the electronics and and aerodynamics with the exception of the fuel has improved. It could be built around the new Hypersonic weapons under development.

    UK/FRA have a variant with a low-altitude cruise phase and a high speed strike phase where the missile releases an additional two guided warheads making interception very difficult, the US has a medium altitude long range very fast missile. Whatever approach is used, these are very effective, a large improvement over legacy systems and equal to several current generation missiles each in effectiveness.

    So even if internal carriage is limited to two (which given size/weight I think is realistic), effectiveness is still probably equivalent to several F35s with NSMs internally stowed. Furthermore range of the US hypersonic weapon is likely 600-1000KM, meaning a strike range well in excess of 3,000Km is not unfeasible with an F14 sized Bomber, particularly if we start talking about good low-drag/stealthy drop-tanks. We are talking about IRBM range/performance.

    At 3,000KM we are very close to unrefueled strikes on shanghai/taiwan strait and all of north korea from Guam, and Hongkong/guangzhou from RMAF Butterworth which is an RAF base in Malaysia. Cover most of the indian ocean from the BIOT airbase. Although I suppose this would largely defeat the purpose of carriers.

    1. This is the kind of thoughtful comment that furthers the discussion.

      It's not clear what upper size limit you have in mind other than your statement that we can't go larger than a fighter. We've flown A-3s so that would seem a more realistic upper limit. I may be misunderstanding you on this point.

      Your point about using tankers to make up for strike range deficiencies is valid.

      You seem to be discussing the use of future weapons. All future weapons are world-beaters. The reality is that very few become even good weapons! That simply means that we need to relegate such weapons to the R&D world until they mature. To base a strike discussion on non-existent weapons is wishful thinking, at best. Thus, your assessment that two such weapons are equivalent to several F-35s with NSMs is without any basis other than Powerpoint. It may be true some day but, far more likely, will not.

      At some point, we have to ask why we should bother with aircraft and not just move to IRBMs? This may be what you're alluding to?

    2. I am referring to no particular size, obviously you cant go bigger than the CATs and LIFTs will allow, but practical limitations based on the cost of the plane and space requiremetns will probably limit you before that point. The point I was making is that if range is a priority, you build platforms for that i.e. F14/F111/SU Flanker series planes, your not going to fit a tanker much larger than that on the carrier.

      And so you will be tanking the plane with a plane of similar sized. This isn't very economic. Regarding the capabilities I am estimating, I don't think they are unreasonable, the F111 in it's last itteration was basically there in terms of how far it needs to go to lob the current US Hypersonic weapon and projected capabilities for re-engined variants would put it there (which might reach preliminary service as soon as 2018 from what I heard) to reach that 3,000KM mark.

      This isn't pie in the sky stuff here. If a pre-teen series fighter is near that performance mark and at it with a re-engined variant, I think a clean sheet 21st century fighter is definitely going to exceed it. And I think if a weapon is 2 years from intrdouction, and every one who is anyone is introducing one in the next 4 years, then we can't discount those either.

      And I am fairly confident that these hypersonic weapons are going to be game changers, because if you look at the defense systems, there effectivenesss is relative to the speed at which a target can go through the range at which they can detect and engage a missile. The faster that missile, the smaller the range it can protect. This can be seen in charts for SHORAD defenses.

      Basically these missiles allow you to penetetrate existing missile defenses, additionally it makes detection harder, and in a pop-up configuration for the European Design, there are several seconds, some figures put it at as low as 3 seconds (it is probably more like 5 or 6 but still) for an interception. During which two independently guided warheads are dispersed. These warheads probably have <3 second window for interception and target the forward and aft sections of the ship (engine and missiles/gun or CNC).

      Even a modern missile such as an NSM will have maybe 30 seconds to intercept. With the timeframes for these hypersonic missiles it is likely that interception will still result in a hit, and kinnetic penetration. Which is what makes the brahmos missile so deadly.

      And regarding the IRBMs, because the aircraft is reusable, it gets you an extra free 2,000KM strike range. And the booster only needs to take you from high supersonic (if you can supercruise at a fast speed) and altitude to low hypersonic. An IRBM would need to boost you from the ground to altitude and to hypersonic speeds before the ramjet can initialize.

      Then you need fixed assets. Submarines can be deployed without basing rights and are relatively stealthy but still very expensive and not infaliable. Land based need basing Rights. Aircrafts can be redeployed in hours anywhere in the world. When the unrefueled strike-range is in excess of 3,000KM then with refueling you can basically strike anywhere in the pacific and indian ocean using existing basing. And hit any target in under 2 hours.

      And when a carrier can sit 3,000KM off-shore and TAC NUKE you with hypersonic missiles, then he is much safer, you need to deliver air assets out to that range to find him. Think of the carriers as floating second-strike air-bases. It is not going to be easy.

    3. And in case you didn't get that, it means that because the effective engagement range of these defensive systemes is going to be downgraded for targets which aren't directly striking them, the defense assets of the Carrier for instance or an air base or any other important thing is going to be downgraded. There will now be gaps in the engagement range, and we can go straight through them to the target.

    4. The A-3D is not the largest/ heaviest sized aircraft that can operate from a carrier deck; I mentioned the KC-130 deck qualifications which represent the upper end of weight, but the upper end of wing span is the U2G, which trialed off of USS Ranger:

      There were serious civilian proposals to use commercial aircraft like the Fokker F28, C-9 (okay that was a MILSPEC DC-9), and 727 for COD. Fokker presented drawings of a folding wing and tail hook.

      Moreover, the A-3D operated off of Midway class carriers, and the U-2 and KC-130 worked off of Kitty Hawk class carriers; imagine what could be done with our larger CVNs or a flush deck carrier.

      Sounds like the subject for another blog post?!?