KC-135s Arrive in Saudi Arabia to Replace Departed KC-10s

KC-135 Stratotankers have arrived in Saudi Arabia to replace the KC-10s which recently left the region for good after 30-plus years of service.

The aerial tankers from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., arrived at Prince Sultan Air Base on Oct. 2. The 384th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron (EARS) will support combat operations throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

A spokesperson at Air Mobility Command told Air & Space Forces Magazine that while the exact number of deployed aircraft can’t be revealed for the operational security reasons, the KC-135s are the optimal replacement for the KC-10s with the durations of theater sorties, and the aircraft will meet Global Combatant Command requirements.

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 assigned to Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, sits on the tarmac after arriving at Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB), Oct. 2, 2023. The aircraft will operate on PSAB as part of the 384th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron (EARS) and will work to support combat operations through aerial refueling within the U.S. Air Forces Central area of responsibility. Courtesy Photo

The KC-135 can haul some 200,000 pounds of fuel and 83,000 pounds of cargo. The tanker also transports patients during aeromedical evacuations using patient support pallets. Some of the aircraft already operate in the region at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

KC-10s had been based out of PSAB since March 2022, but the refueler concluded its final combat sortie from the base on Oct. 3., followed by a deactivation ceremony for the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron the next day. The last KC-10 in the region departed Oct. 5. There are no further planned deployments for the KC-10 fleet until September 2024, when the last Extender is set to retire.

With the KC-10 set to retire, the KC-135 and KC-46 Pegasus will be the only tankers left in the Air Force fleet until the service’s KC-135 Tanker Recapitalization and Next Generation Air-refueling System (NGAS) programs progress. The KC-46 has been cleared for worldwide deployments, but there has been no public indication of the aircraft operating in CENTCOM for months.

The Air Mobility Command spokesperson stated that the KC-135 swap with the KC-10 is solely for the mission takeover, and is unrelated to the rising tensions in the Middle East.

However, the demand for aerial refueling in the region may surge in the upcoming weeks as the Air Force and Navy are deploying more fighter aircraft in response to Hamas’ attack on Israel.

Last week, the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron’s F-15Es arrived into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in the Middle East, as the U.S. continued to bolster its presences and improve air operations across the region.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, and Israeli war cabinet last week in Tel Aviv, to highlight the “bolstered” USAF presence in the Middle East and the deployment of the USS Gerard R. Ford in the Eastern Mediterranean.