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Blended-wing tanker, nuclear reactors, electric cars in USAF’s climate plan

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WASHINGTON — The Department of the Air Force said as part of its new plan to tackle climate change, it must adopt more fuel-efficient aircraft designs, reduce its carbon footprint and energy consumption, and upgrade its infrastructure and facilities to withstand extreme weather events. .

The services Climate action plan, released to the public on Wednesday, outlines a series of goals to prepare for the challenges of extreme weather and changing environments that climate change will bring. In addition, the service wants to reduce its own contributions to climate change.

The Air Force aims to halve emissions from its installations by fiscal year 2033 from 2008 levels and aims to have net-zero emissions from installations by fiscal year 2046.

With jet fuel making up more than 80% of the Air Force’s energy consumption, aircraft efficiency is a central part of the agency’s efforts to become more climate-friendly, according to the report. Mobility aircraft consume the most fuel in the Air Force’s fleet.

“Our overall goal is to deliver more combat power to the war fighter with less fuel,” the report said.

And the targets could have a dramatic effect on what the fleet of aircraft looks like for decades to come.

The agency wants to accelerate development of a blended-wing body for a future tanker or mobility aircraft as part of a plan to increase the aircraft’s fuel economy and drastically reduce energy consumption. The report included a photo of the X-48B blended-wing prototype developed by Boeing’s Phantom Works, NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory in the late 2000s.

A mixed-wing design for a future tanker or cargo aircraft could increase aerodynamic efficiency by at least 30 percent over today’s aircraft, the report said. And burning less fuel would make it easier for the Air Force to conduct missions in a contentious environment, the report said.

The Air Force is now working with NASA, defense companies and the Defense Innovation Unit to accelerate the prototyping of these “ultra-efficient” future tanker and mobility aircraft designs. By fiscal year 2027, the Air Force aims to complete development and testing of a full prototype blended-wing body.

Air Force officials, such as former chief of the Air Mobility Command, General Carlton Everhart, have in the past raised the possibility of a mixed-wing design for the next-generation KC-Z tanker.

The report said the Air Force is also working with defense companies to update existing aircraft with drag-reducing technologies, adopt better engine maintenance technologies, use more simulation and augmented reality systems for training, and modernize the software used to plan and assign flight crews and aircraft.

The report included a photo of Lockheed Martin’s Microvanes on the aft deck of a C-17 Globemaster as an example of drag reduction technologies. Microvanes are designed to reshape the airflow around an aircraft’s rear cargo door so that when that door is opened during flight, it doesn’t create as much fuel-guzzling drag.

The Air Force is also introducing a new program called the Mission Execution Excellence Program, or MEEP, to collect pilot ideas and adopt commercial aviation best practices to find ways for mobility aircraft to use fuel more efficiently. The MEEP program also gives crew members more precise tools to plan their fuel consumption, the report said.

The Air Force hopes MEEP will help reduce overall fuel consumption by 26 million gallons per year.

The Air Force said it needs to modernize its infrastructure and facilities so that they are resilient and withstand changing climates. It aims to spend $36 million in fiscal year 2023 on a resilient basis and increase that spending to $100 million per year by 2027.

For example, the report pointed to the March 2019 flooding at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which left the runways unusable for a period of time, even after the floodwaters receded. But the new US Strategic Command headquarters in Offutt, which was completed earlier that year, was unaffected because it was built on higher ground and had barriers to prevent flooding.

The Air Force is also looking for ways to use alternative energy sources to power bases while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example by equipping bases with small nuclear reactors called microreactors. Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, for example, last week submitted a proposal for its microreactor pilot program.

By fiscal year 2028, the Air Force aims to complete that pilot test and show it can work as an alternative energy source.

The Air Force also wants to increase its use of renewable energy sources such as solar power, which produced 6.9% of the department’s electricity last year. Solar panels now operate at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

By fiscal year 2030, the Air Force aims to have half of its electricity completely decarbonised at all times. It also wants all of its electricity to be completely carbon-free on a net annual basis, meaning it can sometimes rely on polluting energy sources, but at other times offset that with renewables.

The report also outlines goals to have all non-tactical support vehicles in place by fiscal year 2035 to have zero-emission vehicles, such as electric vehicles. These vehicles include commercial sedans, station wagons, vans, and buses that carry passengers or cargo.

Steps to reach that goal are that all light vehicle purchases will be zero-emissions by 2027, and all aircraft support equipment will follow by 2032.

Stephen Losey is the air war reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover US Air Force operations.