Key point: America's flying tankers look like juicy targets to U.S. adversaries.
The United States has devoted billions of dollars to building stealth fighters, stealth bombers, stealth cruise missiles and stealth spy drones. Surely a stealth tanker for refueling aircraft midflight would be an extravagance too much?
However, the concept of a stealth tanker is not as absurd you’d think for one simple reason: the Pentagon’s F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters, which it has made the lynchpin of its twenty-first century air warfare strategy, simply can’t fly far enough.
At first glance, the F-35’s six to eight-hundred-mile range doesn’t seem bad compared to conventional fighters like the Super Hornet or F-16. But those non-stealth designs can carry fuel in in underwing tanks into combat—meanwhile, an F-35 can’t carry those extra lumps of metal under its wings if it wants to preserve its miniscule radar cross-section.
Another problem with the short range of stealth and non-stealth fighters alike is the need to deploy them airbases or aircraft carriers well within range of an adversary’s ballistic and cruise missiles. Conflicts ranging from World War II to Afghanistan have shown that advanced fighters are never more vulnerable than when they are caught on the ground (or a carrier deck). It is virtually a given that in the event of a great power conflict, a terrifying missile barrage would rain down on forward airbases; and just how many airframes would emerge intact from that hail of death is anybody’s guess.