USAF Wants Autonomous KC-135 Tankers!

By Spyros Georgilidakis | February 17, 2024

Autonomous airliners still seem far away, but autonomous KC-135 tankers are something that the U.S. Air Force seems to be examining seriously.

Some time ago, we looked at a story involving single-pilot operations in KC-46 tankers. This aircraft is a military version of the 767, which is slowly replacing the KC-135. The old tankers, progeny of the same Boeing 367-80 that gave birth to the 707, are long overdue for replacement.

The KC-46A (here refueling a B-2 Spirit) is slowly replacing the KC-135

But that doesn’t mean that the U.S. Air Force doesn’t have ideas of how to use them next. The KC-135 fleet is getting harder to maintain, but there is no end of alternative roles for the aircraft – including, it seems, autonomous operations.

The U.S. Air Force has signed a contract with Merlin, a company specializing in aviation autonomy, in a program involving the KC-135. Initially, the company will aim to add systems to the aircraft that will improve crewed operations, taking some of the load off the pilots.

USAF Wants Autonomous KC-135 Tankers!
A KC-135R Stratotanker refueling an F-15C Eagle. Photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Angelique Perez

But ultimately, the Air Force and Merlin want to explore the possibility of autonomous operations for the KC-135. This could theoretically allow the aircraft to carry fuel into less friendly airspace while supporting various manned or perhaps unmanned aircraft.

From The KC-135 To Other Autonomous Jets?

Merlin is developing a software-based autonomy system, that it can adapt to multiple aircraft types. The company has previously worked on other, much smaller aircraft, like the King Air, the Twin Otter, a Cessna Caravan, and others.

It has received a lot of updates over the years (and more after this picture) but the KC-135 is an old aircraft. U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Sean Flynn

The implications of such a program for commercial aviation could be far-reaching if it is successful. Many previously assumed that autonomous operations would likely involve newly-built aircraft, that already have advanced avionics and controls, like the Airbus A350 or the Boeing 787.

Adapting an aircraft like the KC-46, essentially the latest version of a 40+ year-old jet, to higher automation or autonomy, already seemed like a daunting prospect. But introducing autonomous operations on a KC-135 seems daunting on a different scale.

USAF Wants Autonomous KC-135 Tankers!
A KC-135, seen from an F-15 cockpit. Photo: Staff Sgt. Donald S. McMichael, U.S. Air Force

Not only do these jets have a three-person cockpit crew, but their refueling mission involves even more crew. However, the U.S. Air Force has been exploring the possibility of using its aging tanker fleet as aerial-launch drone platforms.

Once the KC-46 has replaced it, perhaps a fleet of autonomous KC-135 tankers could find such roles. Separately, the Air Force is also exploring the possibility of a future stealthy autonomous tanker.



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