“If a tanker fell out you might have seen on the news how a couple of bombers had to land somewhere in Europe, or even worse, you might have seen a news report about two bombers lost in the North Atlantic.”
As reported by major media outlets in the late hours of Jan. 18, 2017 two U.S. Air Force (USAF) B-2 Spirit bombers dropped 500-pound GPS-guided bombs on two Daesh camps in Libya, which were being used to plan and train for attacks against U.S. and allied interests in North Africa and Europe.
As explained by Master Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher, 18th Air Force Public Affairs in his article Air Force refuelers enable B-2 strike against Daesh in Libya, KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender crews from five bases on three continents provided aerial refueling support during the B-2 bomber mission which struck the camps.
A total of 15 tankers participated in the operation, enabling the B-2s to fly the more than 30 hours round-trip to the target from their home base at Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB), Missouri. Planners at 18th Air Force (AF) and the 618th Air Operations Center at Scott AFB coordinated the tanker mission, ensuring the refueling aircraft were at the right place at the right time to get the bombers to and from the Daesh training camps.
“Our goal was to find the aircraft to do the mission,” said Lt. Col. James Hadley, 18th AF Operations Planner. “The mobility enterprise flexed to put tankers from the U.S., U.S. European and U.S. Central Commands toward this effort. Everybody had a part in making this work, and it was very successful.”
The 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, was one of the units that contributed tankers to the refueling mission. Col. Darren Cole, the 305th AMW commander, said several units had to come together from different locations and commands and function together as a team to make this mission happen.
“It’s a big team that has to execute things on time to make it work right,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive to be able to hit a target globally at a moment’s notice with so many people participating.”
Making sure the tankers and bombers meet at the right place and time is like choreographing a Broadway production, Hadley said.
“When you get the request, you have to look at the whole enterprise,” he said. “Some tankers may already be in the right spot, some may have to be moved. The speed of the aircraft are completely different, so they won’t all take off at the same time, and it takes several mid-air refuelings to make an air bridge. If one person is off, the whole mission can go awry.”
Col. Clint Zumbrunnen, 305th Operations Group commander, said the 305th AMW keeps two aircraft on continuous alert just in case such a mission should come up. He said that, coupled with an efficient operations team, made sure the 305th would fly on time.
“The crews grow up here being conditioned for short-notice missions, to show up, plan and get the fuel to the fight,” Zumbrunnen explained. “Our Current Operations team is also particularly skilled at making operations happen on short notice. It makes us particularly well-equipped to do this sort of mission.”
Hadley said the stakes can be high.
“If a tanker fell out you might have seen on the news how a couple of bombers had to land somewhere in Europe,” he said. “Or even worse, you might have seen a news report about two bombers lost in the North Atlantic. Our tanker fleet enables them to do what they do.”
Using tankers sends a message to friend and foe alike, said Hadley.
“They affect things on a global scale,” he said. “They tell our forces that we can support them where ever they are, and it tells our adversaries that we can find you and touch you on a moment’s notice.”
Cole said he’s proud of the role his Airmen played in this mission.
“As always, they do an outstanding job when their nation calls upon them to do the tough tasks,” he said. “And it came off extremely well. It’s air refueling that puts the ‘global’ in ‘global strike.’”
The Libya strike is just one example of how the command facilitates the tanker war against Daesh, said Brig. Gen. Lenny Richoux, 18th AF vice commander.
“The air bridge our planners and tanker crews create enable U.S. and allied strike aircraft to continuously hit Daesh, or any enemy, no matter where they hide,” Richoux said.
“Missions like this one are merely one of many executed every day,” he added. “The mobility enterprise conducts a massive amount of planning every single day, and we coordinate with customers around the globe for each mission. America’s air refueling tanker capability are one of the key missions that set us apart from every other Air Force in the world. Everyone needs air refueling and we deliver it.”
Photo credit: Master Sgt. Val Gempis, Staff Sgt. Jeremy M. Wilson, Staff Sgt. Ken Bergmann and Staff Sgt. Kate Thornton / U.S. Air Force