The Aerial Tanker and Maritime Strategy

July 1, 1981
There has been a lot of talk lately about our new concentration on a maritime strategy, and not only talk The defense budget is bulging with items associated with that strategy, even one providing for the exhumation of a battleship from the ghost fleet. Whether the New Jersey is a logical contributor to that strategy or simply an expensive exercise in maritime nostalgia I will leave to others to debate. For me, maritime strategy in this era is mainly built around airpower, whether sea- or land-based, and it is the land-based contributor to that strategy that needs an airing.

A persuasive argument for aircraft carriers has always been the carrier’s relative independence of bases. Carriers can perform the job of power projection, or simply showing the flag, without the complicated business of arranging for on-the-spot base agreements. And then, when there is no further business to be done, the carrier and its escorts can sail away. It is a convincing reason for keeping some of our airpower afloat, and no sensible person could want it any other way.

The fact that land-based air can now offer power projection capabilities with similar independence of local basing arrangements is neither generally understood nor appreciated. The Air Force capability for in-flight refueling has developed over the years into something unique and truly revolutionary in the tactical sense. The concept was born in 1929 with the legendary flight of Ira Eaker, Tooey Spaatz, Harry Halverson, Roy Hooe, and Pete Quesada who stayed aloft in the Los Angeles area for nearly 151 hours in the Question Mark, refueled by Ross Hoyt and others. Refueling was then almost forgotten until the late forties. The distances SAC faced as it began to address targeting of the USSR brought tankers into the inventory, not so much as a tactical innovation but simply as the alternative to one-way missions.

Again, as in World War II, air refueling played no part in the Korean War. Later on, when fighters began to train routinely in air refueling, their tankers were shaky old KB-50s with drogues streaming out and auxiliary jet engines blasting at full throttle. Those distractions, along with a considerable speed differential, made for interesting night sorties in F-100s. Refueling was becoming accepted, but it had a way to go before anyone truly realized what it could mean to the tactics of airpower.

In Thailand, which saw the daily rendezvous of North Vietnam-bound fighters with an aerial fleet of KC-135s, we began to understand what we had. The tankers served as forward bases, and a concept had come of age. Squadrons of bombers, fighters, or even transports could now move at high Mach numbers around the globe, taking their fuel on the run.

A recent SALT negotiator remarked that the Soviets seemed envious of only one American military capability—the routine and seemingly effortless way we refueled, at night and in all weather, our tactical and strategic forces.

For some reason, that capability has not received the same appreciation in the Pentagon’s E-Ring these past several years. There has been a tentative, almost reluctant, buy of twelve KC-10 tankers, but no enthusiasm whatever for a program to rejuvenate the aging KC-135 fleet.

There are 615 of these old tankers, bought in the days when SAC got what it wanted. It is not likely, just to understate things, that the Air Force will ever again see any administration layout the kind of money 600 new tankers would require. The 615 KC-135s are, then, a priceless asset, an asset with its time running out unless something is done.

As is the case in most defense areas this year, things are looking up for the tanker force. There will be eight more KC-10s for a total of twenty, and the program to reengine and thoroughly overhaul at least 300 KC-135s appears to be on fairly solid ground. Taking into account all the demands a war would make on the tanker force, 300 is not enough, but it is a nice start.

A maritime strategy today must visualize a good deal more than simply concerning itself with an opposing navy. Among other objectives, we presumably intend to keep the sea and air lanes connecting ourselves, our allies, and our suppliers of vital resources free from interruption from whatever source. Air surveillance is an essential part of this task, as is the ability to apply airpower quickly where needed. The air surveillance capabilities of such sophisticated birds as the RC-135 and the SR-71 are multiplied by aerial refueling. With it, there is almost no limit to what can be seen, documented, and reported.

Fighter squadrons based anywhere along the Mediterranean basin, for instance, and supported by tankers, have the whole Med in their sights. A task force of bombers, fighters, recce, even transports, can be formed in the United States and arrive, say, in the Mideast in a matter of hours, with only the tankers in need of en-route basing. It is a maritime strategy Admiral Nelson (who always sought an edge) would have applauded.

But first, the tankers must have a little fixing. The KC-135s in their present state need too much runway, don’t carry enough fuel, and use too much fuel themselves. Furthermore, they are old, and they need new skins and avionics. It is an expensive bill the tanker people are presenting, but like many big investments, the long-term payoff is what a makes it attractive. Besides, look at the alternative: a United States Air Force slowly working its way back to ever-increasing dependence on the uncertain goodwill of countries around the world for base agreements. In that case, we can forget about an Air Force role in a maritime strategy.