TAMPA — One day, all the old, gray flying gas stations called KC-135 Stratotankers, like the 19 now based at MacDill Air Force Base, may be equipped with laser weapons to ward off attackers.
That’s the vision of Air Force Gen. Carlton Everhart, head of Air Mobility Command, which oversees flying branch operations at MacDill.
With the U.S. military looking closely at potential conflict with nations like Russia and China — nations with advanced air defense systems — Everhart launched a study of how to ensure that planes like the KC-135 will survive in the future.
Such a fight would be a major change from the past 17 years, when the United States and its allies have owned the skies above Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other battlefields and delivered ordnance against enemies unable to take down aircraft.
The KC-135s have no armor, no weapons and rudimentary communications systems that would render them easy targets against advanced foes.
"I wanted my team to study how we can succeed if future adversaries seek to create highly contested environments around the most important sites," Everhart recently told a group of reporters by teleconference.
The High Value Airborne Asset study Everhart commissioned looks at how tankers and cargo planes can survive in those situations.
"It is a given that adversaries will look to create highly contested airspace through the establishment of integrated air defense systems, characterized by multiple sensors, a robust battle-management system, and weapons that can reach out hundreds of miles," he said.
"It is also a fact that on occasion, mobility aircraft will have no choice but to operate inside highly contested airspace to achieve objectives ... and to extend our nation’s combat radius."
Combat air patrols may not always be able to protect tankers and cargo planes, he said.
Adversaries fighting with advanced aircraft of their own "introduces the reality that they may get through to tankers," Everhart said.
Protecting the tankers is critical, Everhart said, because they are a key part of U.S. power projection.
During the fight against the so-called Islamic State for instance, tankers flew 46,000 missions, called sorties, that gassed up fighters and bombers as they attacked the enemy.
To help increase future odds of survival for the KC-135s, which first began flying in 1957 and are expected to fly for many more years, Everhart’s study looked at increasing secure communications, battle-space awareness and self-protection systems.
The addition nearest to launching is a system called "Real Time Information in the Cockpit." It’s a technology allowing crews to use data collected by other aircraft, satellites and radar systems to figure out where the good guys are, where the bad guys are and what threats exist.
"Right now I have nothing," Everhart said. "Right now, I have a Mark I radio."
Everhart said the new system will be placed in KC-135s soon, though he did not offer a time frame.
"It will allow the members in the cockpit to become more situationally aware," he said, "and that allows them alternatives which makes them inherently more survivable."
The Air Force, said Everhart, is also looking at putting lasers or other directed energy defensive weapons aboard the old tankers.
"Those technologies are out there right now," he said. "We are just at the infancy stage."
Officials at MacDill, where the 6th Air Mobility Wing and 927th Air Refueling Wing fly the tankers, declined comment. But Chip Diehl, a retired Air Force brigadier general who ran the base from June 1999 to January, 2001, welcomes anything that protects the crews.
"Our men and women who are flying these airplanes deserve these systems," he said. "We need to protect them."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman