Military Aviation

KC-135 Stratotankers provide monumental air bridge to move 100 Aircraft in Europe in support of Air Defender 2023, NATO’s Biggest Exercise Ever

KC-135 Stratotankers providing air bridge in support of Air Defender 2023

The 128th Air Refueling Wing facilitated an air bridge on Jun. 3 leading US Air Force (USAF) aircraft to exercise Air Defender 2023. The German-led, live-fly NATO exercise is scheduled to include 250 aircraft from 25 nations and more than 10,000 personnel throughout Europe.

As explained by Air Force Master Sgt. Kellen Kroening, 128th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs, in the article 128th ARW provides air bridge in support of Air Defender 2023, the 128th ARW KC-135 Stratotankers acted as a flying gas station, using a boom system to transfer fuel to the receiving aircraft, maximizing operational efficiency and reducing transit times.

In fact, as reported by Air & Space Forces Magazine, many of the U.S. aircraft participating in Air Defender are fighters like the F-35, F-15, F-16, and A-10, which often do not have enough gas to cross an ocean on their own.

But the Stratotankers provide fuel to the transport aircraft too: the KC-135 tankers ensure they can reach their destinations without frequent stops for refueling. This capability is especially valuable when transporting time-sensitive cargo or operating in areas where fueling infrastructure is limited or unavailable.

KC-135 Stratotankers assigned to the 128th Air Refueling Wing Wisconsin National Guard, 168th Wing, Alaska National Guard, and the 161st Air Refueling Wing, Arizona National Guard, stand ready to perform the air bridge portion of exercise Air Defender 2023 at Keflavik Air Base, Iceland, Jun. 2, 2023. The exercise integrates both US and allied air-power to defend shared values, while leveraging and strengthening vital partnerships to deter aggression around the world.

NATO’s Biggest Exercise Ever

“The whole point of this [exercise] is to integrate with our multinational partners and show that we can seamlessly work as one large coalition force,” said US Air Force Maj. Brandyn Dietman, 128th ARW deputy director of air refueling.

The air bridge is vital for exercises like Air Defender 2023, where multiple NATO-member air forces and allied countries come together to enhance cooperation, interoperability and readiness. To practice for real defense scenarios, it is imperative that forces can rapidly deploy to different locations.

“Moving 100 aircraft over the ocean in the matter of four or five flying days is a monumental feat,” Dietman said. “Fighter aircraft can’t make it over by themselves, so they need the tankers to build the air bridge to help them get over.”

Besides US fighter jets, Air Defender 23 also features MQ-9s, C-130s, KC-135s, C-17s, and KC-46s, as well as European fighters such as Eurofighters, Tornados, Gripens, and American-made export model F-16s and F-18s. The exercise will take place mainly in three areas over Germany, though there will also be forward operating locations in the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Latvia.

Moreover, US bombers are participating in Air Defender 23—B-1B Lancers from the 7th Bomb Wing are currently on a Bomber Task Force deployment based out of RAF Fairford, UK, and joined the exercise to conduct hot-pit refueling in Romania.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. KC-135R Stratotanker 161st Air Refueling Wing, 197th Air Refueling Squadron “Copperheads”, 63-8038 – Arizona Air National Guard – Sky Harbor ANG Base, AZ

Air Defender 2023

As already reported, from June 12-23, the goal of the drill is to exercise air operations with Allied and Partner air forces. The focus is on optimizing and expanding cooperation among participating nations.

“With exercise Air Defender 23, we are opening a new chapter in transatlantic history,” said Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, Chief of the German Air Force at a press conference for German and American journalists in the US in early April.

The exercise – which Germany started to plan in 2018 (well before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2022) – is based on a collective defence scenario also known as Article 5 scenario in which Allies deploy their air forces to Germany to fight against hybrid occupation forces from a fictitious opponent.

In coordinated combined operations, the Allied air forces demonstrate they are capable of defending NATO territory with swift decisive action.

Photo credit: Master Sgt. Kellen Kroening / U.S. Air Force

A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon with the 140th Wing, Colorado National Guard, approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 128th Air Refueling Wing, Wisconsin National Guard, as it prepares to receive fuel as part of an air bridge in preparation for exercise Air Defender 2023 over the Atlantic Ocean, June 3, 2023. Air Defender 2023, running Jun. 12-23, is the largest air forces redeployment exercise since NATO was founded, integrating both US and allied airpower to defend shared values, while leveraging and strengthening vital partnerships to deter aggression around the world.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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