Reaching New Heights in Operational Energy

  • Published
  • By SAF/IE Strategic Communication Team

For Air Force Operational Energy, 2023 was a year of preparing for the challenges that lie ahead and ensuring every resource is used to its fullest potential. With fuel set to become the margin of victory in great power competition, the Department of the Air Force set out to advance initiatives that significantly increase combat capability, reduce risk in the fuel logistics supply chain, and deliver numerous benefits across the enterprise.

We’re proud to share a few of the ways we fueled more fight in 2023:

1. We made big strides with the blended wing body project.

One of the most impactful projects the Department of the Air Force is exploring is the transformational design of a blended wing body aircraft, which is expected to increase fuel efficiency of large aircraft by 30% (with today’s engines). For an aerial tanker, this can equate to nearly a doubling of mission radius or offload, depending on the mission. This platform demonstration project aims to accelerate future flexibility for tanker and cargo fleets while leveraging significant private capital to maximize Department of Defense return on investment. In August, Secretary Kendall announced that start-up JetZero was selected for the BWB prototype demonstration. The project aims to complete the first flight of a full-scale BWB aircraft in 2027.

2. We drove cultural change across the Department of the Air Force.

The Mission Execution Excellence Program incentivizes optimized flying among heavy mobility aircraft, the largest fuel consumers in the Air Force. The program encourages energy-efficient practices, offering incentives such as rebates and monetary awards to recognize exemplary unit performance, while maintaining the same rigorous standards for mission and training requirements. In less than two years, MEEP has produced substantial fuel savings. During its pilot-year, MEEP savings totaled nearly $3 million within the first five months. This success was only the beginning of the transformative impact and, in 2023, MEEP expanded from four to 16 flying squadrons among C-5 and C-17 aircraft, accruing savings of over $20 million to-date, and significantly reducing fuel consumption by millions of gallons. This year, we plan to grow the program by an additional 13 squadrons through the addition of several more strategic airlift squadrons and expanding to the KC-135 platform.

3. We invested in technology to make our aircraft more aerodynamic than ever before.

By reducing the energy demand of our aircraft, we can increase our range and time on-station, improve our fuel-offload capability, avoid costly maintenance issues and boost engine performance. In 2023, we continued to collaborate with research and industry partners to develop and test several technologies that reduce drag across our mobility fleet. One such example are Microvanes, small 3D-printed structures that attach to the aft-end of the fuselage. The fin-like shape helps redirect airflow in this high drag area, streamlining the aerodynamics and reducing overall fuel demand by approximately 1%. It is estimated that this initiative could save over $10 million annually when installed across the entire C-17 fleet. In 2024, we’ll continue flight testing the microvanes in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory. In addition to microvanes, our team introduced and matured several other initiatives including testing nucleated foam engine washing technology that can improve engine efficiency, vertical wiper blades for the KC-135 that reduce drag by approximately 1%, and many more.

4. We were at the forefront of cutting-edge training solutions.

Virtual reality technology has enormous potential for developing abilities, knowledge, and situational awareness while boosting operational readiness and optimizing fuel consumption. In 2023, we funded over $12 million in augmented and virtual reality training modules for Air Mobility Command and Air Force Special Operations Command. The modules included realistic 3D aircraft specific trainings that allow flight crews the same number of hours of education while reducing wear and tear on aircraft and engines. One study of C-130J training data determined that this technology resulted in a 45% reduction in aircraft downtime and returned over 700 hours to the flightline, teaching pilots and ground crews how to optimize fuel consumption and reduce emissions during flight and maintenance. 

5. We made data informed decisions to fly smarter, not less.

In 2023, we continued to collaborate with stakeholders across the Department of Defense to support modernized information systems and software applications, collect and analyze data to optimize mission planning and execution, strengthen decision-making, and maximize combat capability. Our data analysis capabilities and technologies facilitate greater visibility into Air Force aviation fuel use and have uncovered numerous opportunities to optimize aircraft operations. A new application, Data Integration Network for Operational Energy, synthesizes years of progress toward accomplishing our data strategy by unifying data sources at the sortie level, allowing us to show how we’ve improved energy intensity and how we are making progress toward our energy intensity goals.  This system enables tracking of operational energy initiatives and their key performance parameters, from budget execution to energy cost savings as a combined program and knowledge management system. 

As our team reflects on the achievements of 2023, Air Force Operational Energy is poised and ready to reach new heights in 2024. We will continue to pursue initiatives that increase our efficiency and “lethality-per-gallon,” championing a more sustainable and combat-ready force.