Stratotankers Enable 'Global Reach' that Lets Air Force Hit IS

Air Force personnel at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar cover a KC-135 Stratotanker's engine. (Air Force photo/Vernon Young Jr.)
Air Force personnel at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar cover a KC-135 Stratotanker's engine. (Air Force photo/Vernon Young Jr.)

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar -- The US and its partners in the coalition targeting Islamic State group militants in Iraq and Syria have conducted more than 11,000 airstrikes since the campaign began, and refueling tankers have been key to those missions.

"We may not be the tip of the spear, but we are the ones that enable that global reach," said the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron weapons officer and director of operations, an Air Force major who for security reasons could only be identified by his first name, Richard. "The tankers are the ones that enable (the operation) to be as effective as it is."

The KC-135 Stratotankers out of Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar refuel aerial assets in the US Central Command area of responsibility, which includes Afghanistan.

Without refueling mid-flight, "some fighters may not even be able to make it" to their objectives, Richard said. "If they run out of munitions they leave. If they run out of crew duty day, they leave. But gas is not a factor because we are up there providing them capability."

From Jan. 1 to March 20, the 340th's KC-135s off-loaded more than 97 million pounds of fuel, according to a spokesman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, which oversees the 340th.

In 2015, the refueling fleet from Al Udeid flew more than 14,700 sorties, accumulating about 103,419 combat hours in support of operations in Afghanistan and Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to the 379th.

The Stratotankers are used to refuel aircraft from all service branches and occasionally foreign aircraft that have agreements with the US, Richard said.

To meet its mission, the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron is comprised of active duty, reserve and guard components deployed from across the US

"Basically, anywhere a KC-135 is stationed, we have people coming from that location at one point or another," Richard said.

There are about 60 crews and about 25 KC-135 flights a day, officials said.

The size of the squadron and tempo of the mission create a number of challenges, including crew rotations, training of incoming crews, flight times, mission flow and balancing fuel offloaded versus fuel available, Richard said.

Maintenance of the aging air frames -- KC-135s have been used for about 60 years -- poses another challenge, as does severe weather.

"We don't stop," Richard said. "If there is any way we can get tankers off the ground to support the mission, we will get the tankers off the ground to support the mission."

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