Refueling and Global Air Power by Adrian Lang
"Damn it! What a way to fly into a war--unarmed and out of gas!" -- Tora! Tora! Tora!
There is little debate that when it comes to air superiority, the forces that can stay in the battle longest usually win. Yet when one thinks of modern-day air warfare, images of B-52 bombers with their massive payloads of ordnance, fighter jets with missiles hanging on the rails, and sleek stealth aircraft designed to slip past enemy defenses are conjured up. The image of a flying gas station doesn’t readily come to mind.
But modern-day air warfare requires the use of air-air refueling to project air superiority. Fighters flying Combat Air Patrol (CAP) making trans-oceanic deployments may remain aloft for six or more hours. During the Libyan conflict, Operation Odyssey Dawn, B-2 stealth bombers launched from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, dropped their satellite guided munitions over Libya and then flew directly back. Missions in Iraq sometimes saw B-2s log 30 to 44-hour missions. These were all made possible because of in-flight refueling.
Aerial refueling was first pioneered in the 1920’s by the US Army Air Service. In the civilian world, it attracted interest for trans-Atlantic commercial flights and aircraft operating in the postal service. Aerial refuelling would evolve over the next decades with the help of the British. Both the Royal Air Force (RAF) and US Air Force (USAF) experimented and tested refuelling systems during World War Two, but air-air refueling did not see its first use in combat operations until the Korean War. Since then it has evolved into an integral part of air warfare.
Modern Day Tankers
Numerous countries worldwide have air-air refueling capability and there are a variety of aircraft, both big and small, that are able to deliver gas to other aircraft that require it. The most common aircraft utilized by US forces to replenish their aircraft is the Air Force’s KC-135 Stratotanker, supplemented by the larger KC-10 Extender and smaller HC-130 and MC-130 Hercules variants. The US Navy also uses the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to carry out refueling during carrier operations, while the US Marine Corps’ main tanker is the KC-130 Hercules.
Due to aircraft design, tankers can be equipped with two different systems to transfer fuel: the "Probe and Drogue" and the "Flying Boom." The tanker portion of "probe and drogue" system consists of a retractable hose that extends from the tanker, usually from wing-mounted pods. On the end of the hose, the drogue, or basket as it is more commonly referred to, stabilizes the hose and houses the connection valve. An aircraft requiring fuel flies alongside the basket and connects to it via a refueling probe. It is quite common for probe-and-drogue tankers to be outfitted with two hoses, one on each wing, for simultaneous refueling.
The "boom" method employs a rigid extending tube, controlled by the "boom operator." In current USAF tankers, the "boomer" is stationed at the rear of the aircraft, controlling the refuelling process through a small window. The boomer can manipulate the boom with a joystick, moving it up, down, left and right with the aid of small, wing-like surfaces. An aircraft taking on gas will fly up to the boom, whereupon the boomer will "fly" the boom into the receiver’s built-in receptacle.
Red Flag 12-4 saw both of these systems employed, as US fighters received gas through the booms of their KC-135s and the Colombian Air Force used its probe-and-drogue configured KC-137 and KC-767 aircraft to refuel its IAI Kfir fighter jets. However, the USAF used boom-equipped tankers because its fighters had receptacles, not because its tankers aren’t adaptable. The KC-135 can be outfitted with Multiple Point Refuelling System wingtip pods, enabling it to give fuel to aircraft utilizing either fueling system, while the KC-10 has a built-in hose position adjacent to the boom.
During Red Flag 12-4, the task of aerial refueling was given in part to the 64th Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) which is part of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing (ARW) at McConnell AFB, Kansas.
Red Flag is used as a tool to simulate real wartime scenarios, to help aircrews from participating units prepare for the real thing. For the refueling mission, Command Pilot Capt. Daniel Leininger explained, "We’re given receivers, offload and location and we have to meet specific times to refuel the receivers appropriately."
Mission preparation and planning is a lengthy process which requires the blending of multiple resources to complete successfully even a single sortie. War, however, is unpredictable, and set plans can change quickly even in the simulated environment. On this issue, Capt. Leininger remarked, "There are a lot of ‘fog of war’-type issues that happen, between everyone being new to Red Flag this first week and just day-to-day miscommunication, and it accurately simulates how it is down range in the AOR".
When it comes to fuel planning in the extreme heat of summer in the Nevada desert, Capt Leininger stated, "We typically start out with whatever receivers we’re slated for. With the fuel loads here and how hot it is, they’re maxing us out and we don’t have any extra room so we’re short on fuel. You’re always limited in one way or another. When we do mission planning we account for the time, altitude aloft and the offload capabilities. We try to maximize our fuel load to hit all the receivers and whoever is the highest priority who needs the gas".
The length of time a tanker crew can expect to remain airborne depends on a few factors. Time of year is again one of them. In the summer, the aircraft has to take off with a lighter fuel load than in the winter, so its time aloft, and also how many aircraft it can refuel, are reduced. The number of aircraft to be refueled and their distance apart are also factors. "If [receivers] are spaced close, we get into the theater, offload everything and go home. If [they are not], we are what’s called a ‘Liability Tanker,’ and it becomes a longer mission."
The KC-135, apart from its refueling mission, can be used to transport cargo and also as a medevac aircraft, transferring sick and wounded patients.
The future of aerial refuelers has come under scrutiny over the past few years, as Boeing won a contract to supply the USAF with its next generation of aerial tankers in a protracted, hard-fought battle with Airbus. Boeing will produce 176 modified 767 aircraft, designated the KC-46, to replace the aging fleet of KC-135 Statotankers. The first delivery is expected by 2017.
Aerial refueling is an essential part of the US military’s ability to maintain its "Global Reach" by providing rapid and extended mobility to its air forces. Its role in modern day combat is vital to the success of the overall mission.
Fence Check wishes to thank the 22nd ARW and 99th Airbase Wing Public Affairs for their assistance with this article.