KEFLAVIK, Iceland -- The 351st Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron and the KC-135 Stratotanker deployed from Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, make up an important part of the 48th Air Expeditionary Group here in Iceland.
The 48th AEG has been conducting air surveillance and policing missions as a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization here in Iceland since Oct. 28, 2013, in support of the U.S.-Iceland bilateral Defense Agreement of 1951.
In order to conduct air surveillance and policing, the group's F-15C Eagles, KC-135 Stratotanker and C-130J Hercules are on a 24/7 alert status.
The KC-135 has been in the Air Force's inventory for more than 50 years and is a key element in ensuring that the U.S. and its allies complete their mission without losing valuable time by having to land to refuel.
"For this mission and protecting the air space, fighters may not know how long they will need to be airborne," said Maj. Wiley Semrau, 351st EARS commander. "Without us being here they might have to come back down and land after only being on station for a few hours, but with us here they can extend that time."
According to Semrau, the KC-135 can help the F-15Cs, deployed from RAF Lakenheath, England, stay airborne for an extended period of time.
"Force extension is the big capability we bring to the mission," said Capt. Erika Palmer, 351st EARS pilot. "We give the fighters the capability to extend their range, track targets longer and complete intercepts."
Not only do the tankers do their job of air refueling, they also assist the fighters in performing practice aerial interceptions.
"They have been able to practice a lot of intercepts on us. We fly out to the airspace and then they will follow, find us and intercept," said Semrau.
Aircrews agree that they work more closely together than they do back at their home stations.
"We are working very closely with the fighters so it's nice having the operations desk right beside us and we're here to tell them how we can support them and how we can help them out," said Semrau.
Palmer shared similar thoughts.
"Being here in Iceland and working so close together helps us expand our understanding of the mission and what's going on while also getting to play in the fight a little bit more than we normally would," said Palmer.
Without the efforts of the 351st EARS pilots and boom operators, the fighter jet capabilities would not be as strong. They allow the fighters to arrive to Iceland, practice intercepts, conduct surveillance missions and get home safely. The tanker "drags" the fighters to locations such as Iceland, then enables them to practice intercepts and air-to-air fights, conduct the NATO surveillance mission and return home safely with plenty of divert options during questionable weather.
"It is very important for us to be here during this mission to help assist the F-15s," said Semrau. "Without us being here, the capability of how far out the fighters can fly or how long they can stay in the air would be greatly decreased if they didn't have a tanker to give them the fuel they needed to get back, divert or practice interceptions."