The U.S. Air Force will next month introduce a new, more advanced aerial fuel tanker, the KC-46 Pegasus, that may some day be able to defend itself with a laser.
Tankers re-fuel U.S. fighters and bombers in flight, allowing them to stay aloft longer and fly much farther. That important role makes tankers a key target for adversaries.
Air Force General Carlton Everhart, who oversaw the plane’s acquisition process, says the Air Force is working to add the unconventional feature, allowing the tanker to fly closer to the fight than ever before.
Everhart told VOA in a recent interview that Air Mobility Command, in coordination with Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations, will be testing lasers on airplanes “in about two years.”
"Those things are coming on right now. I'm pretty excited about it," said Everhart, who recently stepped down as head of Air Mobility Command.
The long-awaited tanker will carry up to 96,000 kilograms of highly flammable aviation fuel so it can refuel planes and helicopters in flight through a telescoping boom at its rear or through equipment on its wings.
While the new tanker comes equipped with technology to make it less detectable to enemies, less detectable isn't the same as undetectable, and that’s a problem for both the tanker and the bomber and fighter jets it refuels.
Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that because tankers are "so vulnerable," the Air Force must keep them “far outside the threat ring of an adversary."
"That means that our planes cannot go as far into enemy territory before they have to turn around to come back and hit the tanker again," Harrison said.
Everhart said the idea of defending the KC-46 tanker with lasers is possible because the plane's engines can generate a massive amount of power.
He said the extra defense would make the tanker better “able to support the fighter and bomber aircraft” during combat operations.
If battle scenes from the movie Star Wars come to mind, with lasers shooting adversaries into oblivion, General Everhart says that's not the idea. He calls it a "purely defensive weapon."
The laser could be used to blind the sensors on another aircraft, or an incoming missile, said Harrison of CSIS.
"Or if it's a high enough power laser, it could actually be used to burn a hole to weaken the skin of an incoming missile or aircraft," he added.
One major advantage of defensive lasers is that they don't run out of ammunition, an important feature on an airplane with limited space. As long as they have electrical power, they can keep firing.
Once testing begins, it likely will take years before defensive lasers are fully operational.
Everhart hopes the technology will be finalized on the KC-46 Pegasus during the 2020s.