USAFE Moves Air Guard and Reserve Tanker Mission to Poland

Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force Reserve tankers that deploy to Europe will now operate primarily from Powidz Air Base, Poland, the latest effort to bolster the Air Force’s presence in eastern Europe and reassure NATO allies in the region. 

The shift from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, to Poland is a part of Copper Arrow, a U.S. Air Forces in Europe operation that uses tankers and Airmen from U.S.-based Guard and Reserve units who volunteer to deploy to Europe to support operations throughout the continent. 

“These CONUS-based tankers travel with Air Reserve Component members who voluntarily commit to rotations in the European [area of responsibility],” Col. Gary Dodge, Air National Guard advisor to the commander of USAFE-AFAFRICA, said in an April 20 press release. “As non-Active Duty servicemembers, they voluntarily support this endeavor while spending time away from their civilian careers and their families.” 

Earlier this month, Air Force Reserve Command’s 931st Air Refueling Wing flew KC-46 tankers out of their home station of McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas to Powidz. From there, they integrated with Finnish Air Force F/A-18s, which officials said demonstrates how closely U.S. Airmen can integrate with partner air forces.

“Our U.S. tankers’ interaction and integration with our NATO Allies are a clear demonstration of how we value our partnerships and the importance of enhancing our interoperability,” Col. Timothy Foery, U.S. Air Force Reserve Advisor to the commander of USAFE-AFAFRICA, said in the press release. 

“Look at any image of a KC-135 refueling a Polish F-16 or a KC-46 refueling a Finnish F/A-18, and you immediately understand what we mean by the word ‘interoperability,’” he added.

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A U.S. KC-135 Stratotanker from the 186th Air Refueling Wing, part of the Mississippi Air National Guard, refuels Polish F-16s from Powidz Air Base, Poland, as part of the U.S. Air Force total force exercise, Copper Arrow. Courtesy photo.

In the coming months, 19 different U.S.-based tanker units will also participate in Copper Arrow. Reserve and Guard units help relieve pressure on the RAF Mildenhall-based 100th Air Refueling Wing, the only tanker unit in USAFE. It is also an opportunity for Total Force crews to gain experience operating far from home.

“From a Guard perspective, it’s an opportunity for crews to operate in the European theater for an extended period of time,” Maj. Shay Dickey said about Copper Arrow in 2021. At the time, Dickey was chief of current operations and scheduling for the 116th Air Refueling Squadron and Copper Arrow detachment commander.

“The operating area here is pretty busy, so our younger crews can get some of that experience working in a new region, and it really broadens our horizons for future work in the European theater,” he said.

More than a year after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Copper Arrow moving to Poland is also part of a larger NATO effort to deter Russian advances in eastern Europe.

“For the first time in history, U.S. forces will be permanently stationed on the eastern flank of Europe, in Poland,” Mark Brzezinski, U.S. Ambassador to Poland, said in the press release. 

Referencing Tadeusz Kościuszko and General Casimir Pulaski, two Polish soldiers who fought against the British in the American Revolutionary War, Brzezinski said the 10,000-plus U.S. Airmen and Soldiers on Polish bases today are the latest examples in a nearly 300-year tradition of Polish-American military cooperation.

“Americans have sacrificed for Polish freedom and Poles have sacrificed for American freedom,” he said. “Today, America and Poland share the same freedoms.”