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NEWS | May 28, 2024

U.S.- Australian Interoperability Across the Pacific: RAAF Tanker Refuels USMC F-35B for Transpacific Flight

By 1st Lt. Madison Walls, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing

As a testament to the ironclad alliance and ever-increasing interoperability between the U.S. and Australia, a Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker with RAAF No. 33 Squadron, traveled from RAAF Amberley, Australia to Camp Blaz, Guam, to provide aerial refueling to two U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II aircraft assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 214, Marine Aircraft Group 13, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, for a transpacific flight, May 19, 2024.

On May 3rd, eight F-35Bs and more than 200 Marines from the “Black Sheep” of VMFA-214, departed Yuma, Arizona, for RAAF Tindal to integrate with RAAF No. 75 Squadron and No. 3 Squadron. The mission of the deployment is to enhance interoperability and prepare for future exercises and operations in the region through bilateral training events. Such training consists of basic flight maneuvers, tactical intercepts, offensive counter-air maneuvers, defensive combat air, and offensive counter-air strike night flights.

Following scheduled stopovers in Hawaii and Guam, six jets continued on to Australia while two remained behind for standard maintenance. When those aircraft were ready to depart a few days later, the scheduled U.S. tanker became unavailable for the final leg.

“When U.S. refueling capability was challenged and the Tanker Airlift Control Center couldn’t get us to the finish line, the RAAF stepped up and got us there,” said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. John-Paul Reyes, the operations officer for VMFA-214.

Without hesitation, an Australian KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker from RAAF Amberley was redirected to provide critical aerial refueling support.

“Coordination with RAAF HQ Air Command, RAAF Air Mobility Control Centre, and No. 33 Squadron was seamless; communication and connecting through different point of contacts was quick and exceeded expectations,” Reyes said. “It was clear they were all in to support the U.S.; they prioritized our mission and understood the importance of U.S. F-35Bs arriving in Australia to support follow-on tasking.”

The seamless coordination was made possible by 30 members from across multiple, combined entities. They were all dedicated to getting the U.S. fifth-generation fighters to Australia.

“Opportunities for the RAAF to deploy USMC units and aircraft across the Indo-Pacific region reaffirms the strength of our partnership with the United States,” said Group Captain Stephen Monypenny, Commanding Officer of RAAF No. 86 Wing.

The F-35B variant provides short takeoff/vertical landing capability partnered with supersonic, radar-evading stealth to the Marine Corps and the combined-joint force enabling air operations from austere, short-field bases and a range of air-capable ships around the world. Although the RAAF operates only the A variant, the KC-30 is equipped to refuel the F-35B, a testament to interoperability between the allied nations.

The KC-30 transferred approximately 45,000 pounds of fuel to the two F-35Bs, three times the maximum payload of the jets. This supports an estimated range of 900 nautical miles per refueling and allowed the jets to travel the 2,096 nautical miles from Guam to Australia. By comparison, the KC-30 has an operational range of just under 8,000 nautical miles with the capability to offload 50 tons of fuel for up to four hours.

The KC-30 is such a high-capacity refueling platform that it can refuel the F-35B multiple times while operating in a combat environment without sacrificing its own capabilities. This supports the combined-joint force by extending flight time of the joint strike fighter, while allowing the multi-role tanker to carry out other transport, strategic airlift and defensive missions in support of combined air operations. Such capabilities, combined with deep-rooted military ties between the two nations, provide enduring bilateral integration and warfighting readiness.

“The interoperability between U.S. and Australia was the smoothest coordination I have experienced in my 15 years in the Marine Corps,” Reyes said.

The scheduled training taking place at RAAF Tindal builds upon decades of steadfast allied cooperation and mutual support between the U.S. and Australian forces.

These joint and combined exercises not only deepen the tactical proficiency of both militaries but also reaffirms their shared commitment to collective defense and upholding of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

“The Australian and American crews alike benefit from getting tangible experience in cooperating to plan and execute the move,” Monypenny said. “This enhances our ability to project forces in the region, and to work with the U.S. in support of shared security objectives.”

This operation highlighted the strategic and operational flexibility of 3rd MAW and I Marine Expeditionary Force. I MEF persistently trains in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining a forward presence and an enduring commitment to allies and partners in the region.

The successful transpacific combined-aerial refueling mission not only ensured that training objectives of the USMC and RAAF were met without disruption, but more importantly highlights the strong ties between the U.S. and Australian militaries.

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