Refueling a KC-10 tanker plane in flight: the US Air Force's new challenge

Can a tanker aircraft be refueled, in flight, by another aircraft which is not itself a tanker? It is this challenge that the teams at Travis Air Force Base, in California, are tackling by carrying out a reverse refueling between a KC-10 Extender and a C-5M Super Galaxy, to increase the range of operational options of the US Air Force, particularly in the Pacific.

We know that if Western air forces outperform their potential adversaries in the world, such as Russia and China, it is not so much through the efficiency or advanced technologies of its fighter fleet, nor in connection with an advantage digital sometimes important in certain theaters. This is above all the consequence of a very efficient and densely supplied fleet of support aircraft, such as in-flight refueling aircraft.

The US Air Force alone holds three-quarters of the world's tanker aircraft, and more than 50% of early air warning devices, the famous Awacs. The Western bloc, as a whole, operates 90% of the world's fleets in these two areas.

The tanker plane, a very effective force multiplier

However, each of these devices constitutes a very effective force multiplier when it operates. Thus, an Awacs makes it possible to optimize the response of the fighter fleet deployed in a sector, to respond to aerial threats and coordinate requests for support and strikes. Where 8 or 12 fighter planes are normally needed, a fleet of 4 or 6 aircraft, coordinated by an Awacs, provides the same area coverage.

KC-135 F-16
In-flight refueling makes it possible to increase the length of combat aircraft, but also, and above all, to increase their autonomy above the engagement zone, acting as a force multiplier.

The same goes for tanker aircraft. Indeed, in an operational mission, the “time in area” of a combat aircraft represents the difference between its autonomy and the return journeys to and from its base of operations. Very often, a hunter only has a few minutes or tens of minutes, above his combat zone, to carry out his mission, even when weighed down by imposing canisters.

In-flight refueling makes it possible to avoid these transit routes, which considerably increases the time an aircraft is in the area or, if necessary, allows it to go much further. Thus, a refueling aircraft in the area allows 8 or 12 combat aircraft to save a round trip to the base (variable depending on the distance from the base and the type of refueling tanker), to maintain the same operational posture. The force multiplier effect is quite obvious.

An expensive fleet for the US Air Force, but vulnerable and targeted by the adversary

If the force multiplier role of Awacs and tanker aircraft is indisputable, it is also undeniable for those who must oppose it. In fact, these aircraft became, from the beginning of the 70s, the priority target of opposing fighter aviation, particularly Soviet, which developed tactics and weapons to eliminate these aircraft, or at least, repel them. beyond their zone of effectiveness.

This is how very long-range missiles, such as the 9M83 of the S-300V (SA-12 Gladiator) surface-to-air system with a range of 250 km, or the R-37 air-to-air missile with a range of 300 km, were developed by Soviet engineers in the 70s, to enter service in the 80s. The objective here was to force NATO workers and Awacs to operate several hundred kilometers away. from the line of engagement, further reducing their effectiveness in supporting Western fighter aviation.

S-35s firing an R-37M missile
The Russian R-37M ultra-long-range air-to-air missile can be carried by the Mig-31 interceptor and the Su-35s heavy fighter.

It should be noted, in this respect, that the Soviets, then Russians and Chinese, still favor, today, the use of heavy fighters with great autonomy, such as the aircraft of the Flanker family (Su-27/30/ 33/34/35 and J-11/15/16), rather than investing in a large fleet of aerial refueling tankers. It is true, however, that efforts have been made, particularly in China, to strengthen the entire support fleet over the last ten years, with the development of new Awacs and the entry into service of the T- tanker aircraft. 20U.


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