For the fighter pilots participating in the largest NATO exercise since 2002 – Trident Juncture 2015 – aerial refueling tracks with the codenames “STAR 26”, “Texaco”, “Horse” and “IBIZA” amongst others were key to the success of their mission – because NKAWTG! Providing ‘flying gas stations’ that enable the short-legged fighters to extend combat radius and loiter time is a service as vital as ever and heavily in demand. When requesting tanker support in Europe, be it for exercises or real-world operations, quite often the first unit to answer the call is the 100th Air Refueling Wing, the ‘Bloody Hundredth’ based at RAF Mildenhall in the UK. Kevin Jackson writes.
Trident Juncture 2015 (TJ15) took place throughout Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and also Canada, Norway, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Involving 30 nations and 36,000 air, land, maritime and Special Forces personnel this huge three-week exercise was held to demonstrate NATO’s new increased level of ambition in joint modern warfare and to show-case a capable, forward-leading Alliance equipped with the appropriate capability and capacity to meet present and future security challenges. At the conclusion of Trident Juncture 2015, the Headquarters Staff from Joint Force Command Brunssum will be officially certified to lead the NATO Response Force, if activated, throughout 2016.
TJ15 airpower consisted of aircraft from 16 NATO member countries and three partner nations, based in Italy, Portugal and Spain. Air assets are fully integrated with land and sea forces and were made up of 115 fighter aircraft, 19 transport aircraft, 36 helicopters, three AWACS aircraft and others including UAVs, VTOL and jamming platforms.
In addition, filling the aerial refueling requirement were nine tanker aircraft from the RAF, Luftwaffe, Canadian Forces, Italy, Netherlands and the United States.
The 100th Air Refueling Wing deployed from RAF Mildenhall to Son San Juan Air Base on the island of Mallorca with two KC-135R Stratotankers and 48 personnel, operating alongside a Luftwaffe Airbus A310MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport) and supported by the Spanish Air Force from 21 October – 5 November.
The author talked to Capt. Joshua Fuller, 100th Operations Group Training Officer and the TJ15 United States Tanker Task Force Commander, about the background to the deployment. Capt Fuller explained, “In January of this year they had the initial planning conference in Ramstein, where everyone offered what they could give to the exercise and requested where they would like to be and Palma was mentioned as the perfect central location, given where the exercise would take place from Portugal to Italy.
“The fighter guys need to be close to the fight”, Capt Fuller continued, “they have short legs but the tankers could fly from this location and go in either direction. Also we are neither ‘Red Air’ nor ‘Blue Air’ for the exercise; we’re everyone’s fuel so to be in a neutral location out of everyone else’s way makes it convenient for us.”
Asked if deploying South for the exercise period was crucial, Capt. Fuller replied, “Absolutely essential, I actually had to answer this question to my wing commander back home – is it worth the expense to send 48 people down to Mallorca to do the exercise? And the answer is yes. We could make it happen from Mildenhall but it would probably take four aircraft a day to do it, just because for some of the places we go it is a three and a half hour journey down from Mildenhall, so a seven hour round trip gives us 25-35,000Ib to offload if we are on station for any amount of time. So we just couldn’t do it with the two aircraft, we’re gainfully employed here for two aircraft every day.
“That’s the great thing about being a tanker unit; we are used to operating away from [our] home station. A lot of fighters, they take off from home and they fly around the flagpole or if they move they take a big entourage with them. We are used to taking a tanker, with one aircraft commander, a co-pilot and a boom operator and going anywhere in the world and operating. So our operating procedures are designed to just move with us so the same thing we do at home we’ll do here. So for the crews, as far as they’re concerned, other than it being a fantastic location it’s just like taking off and flying a home station sortie.”
For the sustained operations from Palma for TJ15, the 100th AMXS (Aircraft Maintenance Squadron) brought 24 personnel to keep both KC-135Rs in good shape for the demanding flying schedule. The deployed unit is comprised of nine different specialised units who are available 24/7. Many of these units have a major impact on the aircraft including hydraulics, propulsions, fuels and aircraft ground equipment.
Along with the 100th AMXS and aircrew from the 351st ARS the prolonged exercise also required additional 100th ARW staff. Capt. Fuller explained, “If it were one tanker we would need a day shift and a night shift and for two tankers it’s the same, therefore it’s more efficient to bring two aircraft here than if we were to maybe put one aircraft in Spain and one in Italy and take four shifts. As far as other personnel going, this being such a large exercise and a big interest from foreign media in what we do I was able to get our chief of Public Affairs to come out to handle that. I was also able to get a contracting officer to come out in case there were things we needed to purchase. In general I would say it’s a boiler plate contingent that we bring anywhere for a sustained operation.
Capt. Fuller outlined the basic planning process for the TJ15 refueling missions: “As the requirements from our receivers evolve over time prior and leading up to the exercise the Serialized Fuel Training Plan or SFTP would change about once a week and a new draft would be sent out so we could see what we were going to be tasked with. Day one of the exercise, as soon as it kicked off the SFTP became a dead document, no longer evolving. Everything now was going to be put out on a daily Air Tasking Order (ATO) so that’s where we get our marching orders on a daily basis, off of that ATO which may or may not resemble the SFTP. Right now a week and a half in we’re about 50% from what we thought we were going to do and 50% ad-hoc tasking.
“We have a Multi-Point Refueling system (MPRS) (pronounced ‘Mippers’) [equipped KC-135R] that is gainfully employed and a Boom tanker that has the option to have a drogue fitted if needed but so far it hasn’t been required, although we brought it just in case. The MPRS tanker is able to refuel both boom and drogue receivers on the same mission. We have a lot of F-16s from Portugal, Greece, the U.S. and Poland for example using the boom and also JAS-39s and Hornets using the drogue.”
Any exercise that focuses on the flying mission affords the ideal opportunity to accelerate aircrew training at the 351st ARS, as Capt. Fuller explained. “Being a service orientated aircraft and not generating our own sorties we are able to get our training on any sortie that we do. I work in the Operations Group training back home that handles upgrade training from co-pilot to aircraft commander and from aircraft commander to instructor pilot. This particular exercise is a superb opportunity for two of my officers.
“We have two senior co-pilots that were ready for aircraft commander upgrade”, Capt. Fuller continued, “so we got all of their simulator sorties and academics done back home and we brought them out here; normally we would just have an aircraft commander, co-pilot and boom operator but here I have an instructor pilot and a senior co-pilot in upgrade training on two of these sorties. So the co-pilot is acting as if he’s the aircraft commander and the instructor as the co-pilot. I can’t think of a better opportunity, if we want our aircraft commanders to be global, ready to take this aircraft around the world then what better opportunity than to come to a multi-national exercise like this and throw them to the wolves, as it were, and say ‘here’s a very complex mission’. When they get home and have to take a check ride I don’t anticipate any problems with the kind of training they’re getting here.”
The third essential member of the crew on each tanker mission, the Boom Operator, or ‘Boomer’, also benefits greatly from experience gained at exercises such as Trident Juncture. Capt. Fuller: “Everyone’s got their little bag of tricks and our goal is to fill up that bag as early as possible. So any receiver they can see now is one more receiver under their belt. We’ve got two instructors and one young, but one of my most squared away Boom Operators, for them to have this experience and go back as instructors and be able to spread that to the rest, that’s pretty invaluable training.”
For 100th ARW Boom Operator SrA. Danielle Repp TJ15 is all about keeping current and providing training to other NATO receivers that do not get many opportunities to work with the 351st ARS. “For our training, most of it is continuation. For us contacts are a big thing, making sure we get night contacts. This has been a really unique opportunity to get all these nations to come together to train and get people current and qualified. Pilots that don’t refuel off 135s a lot or get a lot of experience, it’s really good that we can help them with that.”
Maintaining the NATO standards all aerial refueling abides by is always at the forefront, as SrA Repp explained. “You do see a little bit of a difference, in things like radio calls but we have a book that says ‘this is it across the board, no matter what nation you’re from’ and everybody sticks to that contract.”
With an expected final tally of providing fuel to approximately 130 receivers during the 12 flying days of Trident Juncture 2015, the two KC-135Rs and the highly experienced personnel of the 100th ARW remain in high demand at the forefront of NATO air refueling operations. Capt. Fuller summed up the unit’s role: “As far as the exercise goes, we’re invaluable. We’re doing roughly a third of the refueling that’s happening for the exercise. There was a point where we thought we might actually lose a tanker for the exercise a number of months back and we were told in no uncertain terms that we need both American tankers out there if this exercise was going to be a success.
“I feel like we’re a success just given the number of phone calls that I’m getting every night. As far as the 100th ARW and our role in NATO, I’ll tell you we’re busy at home on a daily basis and we’re not flying routine training missions. I’ve never been busier in my life and I’ve been an instructor at a UPT (Undergraduate Pilot Training) base!”