TechSkunk Works unveils stealthy Next-Gen Air Refueling Tanker for U.S. Air Force

Skunk Works unveils stealthy Next-Gen Air Refueling Tanker for U.S. Air Force

One of the earlier visualizations of the future flying tanker
One of the earlier visualizations of the future flying tanker
Images source: © United States Air Force

6:07 PM EDT, May 14, 2024

The Lockheed Corporation's Skunk Works design office has recently showcased a conceptual design for a cutting-edge flying tanker. This aircraft, emerging from the NGAS (Next-Generation Air Refueling System) program, aims not only to replace the aging models currently in use but also to endow the American Air Force with unprecedented operational abilities. So, what's the scoop on this futuristic aircraft?

Skunk Works has long been at the forefront of aviation innovation, churning out revolutionary aircraft such as the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II, and the RQ-170 Sentinel. On May 13, through an announcement on Aviation Week, Skunk Works revealed its latest project: a visionary design for the next-gen NGAS flying tanker.

This new tanker strays significantly from current air refueling aircraft designs like the C-46A Pegasus and the older KC-135 Stratotanker. Early visuals, accompanied by an F-35, suggest the NGAS flying tanker is notably smaller than its predecessors. It is depicted utilizing a rigid boom for fuel transfer and appears to be operated by a crew of more than one person.

Earlier concepts hinted at the possibility of blended wings for the NGAS aircraft. However, the latest imagery presents it with lambda-shaped wings—akin to those seen on drones like the X-45 or RQ-180—equipped with under-wing air intakes for its engines.

Flying tanker of the next generation NGAS and F-35 - visualization
Flying tanker of the next generation NGAS and F-35 - visualization© Aviation Week, Skunk Works

NGAS – A Leap Forward in Air Refueling

The NGAS initiative represents America's quest to develop a next-generation flying tanker. Aiming to supersede the current fleet, including aircraft like the C-46A and the KC-135, the NGAS program seeks to offer the Air Force radically new capabilities. Its compatibility with next-gen aviation, such as the B-21 Raider and the forthcoming air superiority fighter from the NGAD program, will be integral.

The NGAS program aims to augment the capabilities of flying tankers substantially. Traditionally, these aircraft, being modified transport or passenger planes, are easily detectable and susceptible to attack. This vulnerability confines them to operations within safe, controlled airspace, away from frontline hostilities.

The NGAS project aims to produce a flying tanker that can operate effectively in contested spaces, nearing adversary lines if necessary. Integrating stealth features and self-defense mechanisms, highlighted by innovations such as the Hard Kill Self Protection Countermeasure System (HKSPCS), will be key to achieving this.

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