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NEWS | Nov. 9, 2023

US Air Force completes first commercial air-to-air refueling of fighter aircraft

By Tech. Sgt. Jimmie D. Pike, Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs

The U.S. Air Force is shifting the way it builds and maintains readiness for flight operations by way of commercial enterprise.

This change isn’t completely new, as the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have been leveraging this capability for almost 20 years. However, the Air Force is now hopping on board to use commercial refuelers.

“Just this past Summer, a commercial refueling company was able to refuel an Air Force E-3 and an RC-135 in coordination with Air Combat Command during an exercise,” said Lt. Col. Curtis Holtman, Pacific Air Forces air mobility operations chief. “We’re expanding that aperture in PACAF, and identified a proof-of-concept employment to refuel fighter aircraft during exercise Commando Sling 23.”

During this exercise, a commercial refueler flew with Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons from Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, to Singapore to provide aerial refueling enabling the pilots to further project airpower.

The capability of the commercial refueler didn’t end with topping off fuel for Air Force fighter aircraft.

“The KDC-10 was also loaded with more than 40 passengers attending the exercise and four pallet positions worth of cargo to exercise the aircraft’s dual role capability for airlift as well as refueling,” said Holtman.

The accomplishment of this proof-of-concept is a pivotal achievement for the Air Force as it

demonstrates a key capability the Air Force can continue to leverage enabling a surge in exercises while simultaneously maintaining immediate mission readiness.

“If we can use commercial air refueling to cover the point A to point B movements for exercise participation across unit readiness training, then it frees up our warfighter tanker fleet to be ready to respond for emerging contingency requirements,” said Holtman. “This is another mechanism that we can leverage to increase our warfighter readiness.”

According to Holtman, by the end of the exercise, commercial refuelers will have provided air-to-air refueling to three separate airframes: F-15Cs, F-16s, and F-22s.

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