Several years ago an independent study involving an “Air/Sea” war against China was done, and the F-35 didn’t do so well. While Lockheed Martin did their best to spin the study as a few hacks running hacky simulations on repurposed gaming rigs, the weakness of the F-35 that the study uncovered was never refuted.
Distance. The Chinese can force the F-35 to take off at “extreme ranges” and rely on their robust A2AD systems to shoot down F-35s as they retreat back to land and ship based landing strips. That really big noisy hot engine isn’t stealthy at all from the back.
Enter the “stealth refueling drone.” This solves the distance problem so now an F-35 can fly evasively rather than by necessity to get back to an airstrip or ship. And this advantage also applies to the F/A-18 series aircraft operated by the US Navy. The Navy has put way too many flight hours on those Hornets and Super Hornets using the Super Hornets as impromptu refuelers to extend the range of the strike package already for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Eventually, AI will be mature enough to have stealth drone strike craft with a “fire and forget” capability (similar to current generation Tomahawk in terms of range and strike precision, but with stealth insertion capabilities). But we are not yet at that point in terms of political appetite. The Norwegian Strike Missile (or shore to ship missile) by Kongsberg already uses logical final target guidance, and is damn impressive about it.
If a KC-135 or other large airborne gas station can loiter outside targeting range, and in flight refuel stealth drones, which in flight refuel stealth strike packages, it gives the US Navy and US Air Force (and the Marines) a real chance at projecting serious combat power into China’s “Anti-Access, Area Denial” zones.
It is an interesting time to be part of the “next evolution in military affairs.”