Wait — flying faster actually saves fuel?
That was my first reaction when my team presented the results of its fuel analysis for a transoceanic mission made up of six F-22 Raptors and two KC-10 Extenders. Our demonstration proved that fifth-generation fighters need to fly faster (about 10 percent faster than the legacy aerial refueling airspeed, but still within tanker boom limits) during transoceanic fighter (Coronet) missions in order to maintain optimal efficiency.
The increased speed preserves fuel, which could be helpful when you want to stay in the fight for one more pass. In addition, flying faster can also reduce total mission cost because you put fewer flight hours on the jet.
With each flight hour costing tens of thousands of dollars per fighter jet, and over 1,000 transoceanic fighter missions each year, that adds up to a lot of potential savings. But more importantly, it’s resources that can be used to increase combat capability for the war fighter.
This got me thinking: how else can we use data to optimize the U.S. Air Force?
For decades, commercial airlines have used data as their weapon against high fuel costs, resulting in about a 3 percent increase in efficiency annually. While the Air Force has made some efficiency improvements over the years (like optimizing the landing weight of the KC-135 Stratotanker, for example), we still lack enough data across all of our airframes to take advantage of the many possible areas for improvement.
We can no longer assume that “taking off full and landing empty” equates to maximum efficiency. The Air Force burns approximately $5 billion in aviation fuel annually, so even relatively small increases in efficiency (2-4 percent) for our large aircraft fleet could mean hundreds of millions of dollars available for other mission necessities, like additional training hours or upgraded equipment on training ranges.
Demonstration Results in Policy Update and Optimized Operations, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Operational Energy (SAF/IEN), Corrie Poland, 2 October 2018
Could Flying Faster Save the Air Force Fuel?, SAF/IEN, Carrie Poland, 20 Nov 2017
Operational Energy, Office of the Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment Operational Energy (ODASD(OE))
New Operational Energy Strategy Released by the Department, ODASD(OE), 2016
DoD 2016 Operational Energy Strategy, ODASD(OE), 2016