SALT LAKE CITY, UT – On November 2nd, 2021, Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard, announced the selection of the Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Air Refueling Wing as the KC-135 Test Detachment for the Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) Test Center (AATC). This announcement officially formalizes an arrangement between the Utah Air National Guard and AATC to continue providing operational test capabilities to the KC-135 community.
Ensuring global reach for the Joint Force requires air refueling capabilities that enable the generation of combat power in austere and contested environments. With the retiring of the KC-10 and the KC-46 coming online, the Air Force will need a modernized fleet of upgraded KC-135s in order to project that global power in the years to come.
“Modernizing the KC-135 tanker fleet with new capabilities and cutting-edge technology increases combat effectiveness and readiness”, Loh said. “New capabilities require the skill and experience of seasoned ANG personnel, which take years to achieve. The Utah Air National Guard and AATC have talented and proven Guard warriors at the forefront of the KC-135 modernization efforts.”
The Utah ANG has been a part of KC-135 combat modernization since the first indications of threat modernization from peer adversaries that were specifically designed to target Mobility Air Forces (MAF) aircraft.
In coordination with AATC, the Utah ANG has been leading the charge in accomplishing the three-phase plan developed in a total force construct. Phase one was to provide the KC-135 more situational awareness by presenting crews threat information from sensors already in the battlespace, via Link-16. The second phase developed a KC-135 specific strategic roadmap that addresses battlespace and situational awareness. Podded solutions, similar to the “HVAA Pod” have been key in this endeavor. Finally, phase three addresses mesh networks and the KC-135 contribution to the multi-domain landscape as a forward operating sensor and fusion hub.
Podded solutions are key, in that they maximize modernization efficiency, in a fiscally responsible manner, and at the pace that elicits pacing threat recalculation. Podded solutions expedite current acquisition programs by harnessing the relationship between advanced US industry ingenuity and mitigating the burden of heavy depot maintenance; a strategy that fighter aircraft have been using for decades. The 151st and AATC have become the gold standard for vetting podded solutions that provide technology demonstrations and combat capability options to Combatant and MAJCOM Commanders, with very little vested cost or risk.
All MAF aircraft, aside from the C-5, can accept a pod, the key is to develop the technology so the pods can be shared amongst the entire MAF inventory rather than stovepiped solutions by major weapons systems.
Brig. Gen. Dan Boyack, Commander of the Utah ANG, states the technological advancements of our adversaries, as well as the geographical advantages they would have in future conflicts, makes these modernization efforts essential for our warfighters.
“We are already taking critical steps to initiate modernization across the force,” said Boyack. “Providing support to AATC as a test detachment will play a critical role towards the KC-135’s modernization efforts and will only help to ensure we [tankers] can provide the combat effect needed by our Combatant Commanders. We have a talented group of Utah Guardsmen leading these efforts and are excited to see what they help develop and field next.”
The AATC is responsible for operational capability evaluations, tactics development, and modernization for the preponderance of Air Reserve Component (ARC) weapons systems. This composite flying organization is composed of A-10, C-130H, F-15, F-16, HC-130J, HH-60, MQ-9, and KC-135 aircraft at four geographically separated units.
According to Lt. Col. Jeff Gould, AATC KC-135 test director and a Utah Guardsmen, with the standup of the KC-135 Test Detachment, AATC KC-135 Test will be able to improve the situational awareness and survivability of the KC-135 through the rapid modernization process AATC has proven on other platforms such as the F-16 and C-130. Modernization efforts on the KC-135 will provide Air Mobility Command and the Air Force options that will assure mission success on the KC-135 for the next 40 years.
“I am humbled to be a part of the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Test Center – KC-135 Operational Test Detachment preferred test detachment location selection team who made this possible,” Gould said. “Humbled for we (AATC and the Utah ANG) stand on the shoulders of giants who have made the KC-135 valuable to the Joint fight, now it is our turn to improve upon this legendary platform to meet the demand of combat operations for the next 40 years.”
In July 2020, the Utah ANG’s 151st Air Refueling Wing upgraded the first KC-135 with NATO-Standard Link 16 communication capabilities as part of its real-time information in the cockpit system (RTIC), bringing the aircraft into the 21st century and revolutionizing the tanker’s role in combat.
Aircraft 0275 is the first and only Block 45 RTIC modified KC-135 to date. Aircraft 0275 was also the primary testbed aircraft for both ground and flight testing of the RTIC system by the AATC, a significant point of pride for Utah.
“By outfitting the tanker with systems to allow everyone in the battlespace to see and communicate effectively, we reduce decision timelines for all involved without increasing the number of aircraft required in the battlespace,” said Col. Doug Foster, commander, 151st Operations Group. “This is the physical representation of U.S Air Force Gen. Brown’s vision of using existing aircraft in previously unused ways to improve combat effect.”
Moving forward, much of the technology demonstrated on ANG KC-135s, to include defensive systems and additional force multiplying capabilities, can be transferred to other Mobility Air Forces aircraft, including KC-46, C-17, and C-130, at a much lower program risk level to individual aircraft programs.
“We are attempting to accelerate change in the most fiscally responsible fashion, something that we are very proud of,” Foster added. “All of our efforts are with the entire MAF in mind as the C-130, C-17, and KC-46 can all carry podded solutions. Using a common interface, we can and will provide solutions to almost all large wing aircraft while buying down programmatic risk to the entire MAF portfolio.”
An official ribbon cutting ceremony will be held on a future date.