Tankers enable long-range bomber capability during Polar Roar

Air Force photograph by A1C Christopher Thornbury

A B-52 Stratofortress from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., receives fuel from a 305th Air Mobility Wing, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., during Polar Roar, a strategic deterrence exercise, in the skies near the North Pole, July 31, 2016. The B-52 received 70 thousand pounds of fuel from the KC-10 during the refueling.

Mobility airmen play a vital role in deterrence and stand ready to operate in support of global operations at a moment’s notice.

Air Mobility Command Airmen, 15 KC-135 Stratotankers and 10 KC-10 Extenders enabled Air Force Global Strike Command B-52s and B-2s to sustain air operations for more than 20 hours during ?Polar Roar July 31, 2016.

Through multiple air refuelings, strategic bombers conducted intercept training using three different flight paths which encompassed more than 55,500 miles with North American Aerospace Defense Command assigned fighters. Additionally, they conducted inert weapon drops training at the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex.

“The 618th Air Operations Center here supports bomber assurance and deterrence missions throughout the year, but not to this level of synchronization, nor simultaneously,” said Maj. Matthew Wilcoxen, 618th AOC, new requirements branch chief. “Supporting three distinct BAADs that operate in a single theater is PhD-level planning.”

A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a B-52 Stratofortress, above Minnesota, July 31, 2016. Four of McConnell’s KC-135s assisted in refueling two B-52s to reach Polar Roar. Polar Roar is a mission in the Arctic Circle that demonstrates the ability to provide a flexible and vigilant long-range global-strike capability.

The following bases facilitated air refuelings: Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas; Fairchild AFB, Wash.; Sioux City Air National Guard Base, Iowa; Travis AFB, Calif.; MacDill AFB, Florida; Seymour-Johnson AFB, N.C.; Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H>; and Bangor Air National Guard Base, Maine.

“In 2015, we supported two different bomber segments in two different theaters simultaneously, requiring 11 tankers,” said Wilcoxen. “This year’s addition of a third bomber segment during Polar Roar, coupled with the addition of a third theater [Europe] increased the tanker requirement for a total of 25 tankers.”

Tankers are critical to U.S. Strategic Command, and Air Mobility Command is the only Air Force command with trained Airmen able to provide and meet their air refueling needs, he said.  For this reason, tanker crews routinely practice bomber refueling during BAAD missions around the globe, during exercises and in day-to-day operations.

In all, KC-10s from the 305th Air Mobility Wing at JB MDL delivered nearly 300,000 pounds of fuel during their 10-hour sortie.

“Each KC-10 tanker gave the B-52s roughly 65 to 70,000 pounds of fuel so they could continue on with their part of the overall mission,” said Senior Master Sgt. Mark Barnette, 32nd Air Refueling Squadron boom operator at JB MDL. “We enable aircraft to get anywhere in the world with our refueling capabilities.”

Maj. Matthew Jones, a pilot assigned to the 349th Air Refueling Squadron at McConnell AFB, led a formation of four tankers in off-loading 200,000 pounds of fuel during Polar Roar.

A B-52 Stratofortress from the 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale Air Force Base, La. conduct aerial refueling with a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, while conducting a non-stop flight from the U.S. to the North and Baltic Seas during the operation POLAR ROAR July 31, 2016. During the operation, the bomber crews strengthened their interoperability with key allies and partners by conducting intercept training with NORAD-assigned Canadian and U.S. fighter aircraft and Portuguese Air Force fighter aircraft assigned to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission. The operation demonstrated the ability of the U.S. bomber force to provide a flexible and vigilant long-range global-strike capability, and provide unique and valuable opportunities to train and integrate with allies and partners.

“Tankers are extremely important to STRATCOM’s missions,” said Jones. “(STRATCOM’s) goal is to be anywhere on the globe to show deterrence, but they do not have that capability alone. They need tankers to reach their destination.”

Polar Roar involved three nonstop, simultaneous flights of B-52 and B-2s from the U.S. to the North and Baltic Seas, around the North Pole and over Alaska, and over the Pacific Ocean to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Polar Roar helped ensure bomber crews maintain a high state of readiness and crew proficiency and demonstrated their ability to provide a flexible and vigilant long-range global-strike capability. Additionally, Polar Roar provided opportunities to synchronize strategic activities and capabilities with regional allies and partners.

B-52s from the 2nd Bomb Wing flew nonstop from Nellis AFB, Nevada, to the North and Baltic Seas, where they conducted intercept training with the Portuguese air force and Royal Canadian air force fighter aircraft, before returning to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.

At the same time, B-2s from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, flew over the Pacific Ocean to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, where they practiced intercepts with NORAD-assigned fighter aircraft and conducted inert weapons drops at the JPARC.

In addition to strengthening air crew skills and enhancing familiarity with operating worldwide, missions such as Polar Roar serve to improve Air Mobility Command’s interoperability and capability to enable others to respond to any threat across the globe.

(Editors Note: A1C Christopher Thornbury from McConnell AFB, Kansas, and SrA. Joshua King from Joint Base McGuire Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., contributed this article.