James Holmes

Aerial Refueling: Air Power’s Kryptonite

For A2/AD against the U.S. Air Force, all the PLA has to do is attack its tanker aircraft.

Aerial Refueling: Air Power’s Kryptonite
Credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

This week Naval Diplomat pal Commander Greg Knepper, a naval aviator and fellow at the Brookings Institution, bellows forth a cri de coeur on behalf of aerial refueling.

Unglamorous? Maybe. We tend to think about air combat in terms of sensors, gun and missile ranges, and payloads, and the arcane parameters conveyed in energy-maneuverability diagrams. Sexy! But combat characteristics matter little if Mav and Goose never close to battle range. That’s a real prospect in prolonged or long-distance missions, when “short-legged” aircraft are apt to exhaust their tanks without support.

In short, the humdrum capability manifest in tanker aircraft is an enabler without peer. Short combat radii hamper modern tactical aircraft, while their bases — aircraft carriers or airfields — may come under assault in anti-access settings. Operating at a safe distance stretches out ranges from origin to combat zone, extends missions’ duration, and compels pilots to refuel more. Savvy opponents doubtless realize this. If they can compel an enemy to undertake longer flights, they increase his reliance on logistics assets. And if they knock out those assets, the rest of the enemy air wing either bugs out or crashes to earth.

Simple. Think about it in surface-warfare terms. If I were fighting the U.S. Navy and its allies, I would skip the attacks on cruisers, destroyers, and carriers. Those can fight back. Instead, why not strike the combat logistics vessels? Once you sink or drive off the oilers and stores ships, the fighting ships — vessels with marginal reserves of fuel and stores, and limited staying power — wither on the vine. What Greg proposes is that U.S. aviators confront similar red-team tactics. Just as the surface navy needs more — and more defensible — logistics assets, flying corps need more resilience of their own.

In a passage sure to warm any strategy professor’s heart, Greg points out that aerial refueling is a tactical capability whose loss could reverberate up to the operational level — and perhaps impair larger strategic or political purposes. Clausewitz observes that certain tactical encounters have direct political import, and enjoins commanders to turn such encounters to advantage. If bypassing a stronger air force’s combat punch to pummel lightly defended logistics assets makes that air force go away, that’s the stratagem of choice for cunning air defenders.

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Fleeing from scenes of action means surrendering operational goals — and perhaps abandoning the campaign and its political purposes altogether. That’s the sort of butterfly effect Sun Tzu has in mind when he counsels generals to look for opportunities whereby the “force applied is minute but the results are enormous.”

Recommendations? For contested skies, Commander Knepper would incorporate self-defense measures into future tankers, provide them with fighter escorts, allocate fighter/attack planes as tactical refueling assets, develop unmanned tankers, and — most problematically in a resource-constricted budgetary environment — extend the combat radius of future warplanes. For “permissive,” or relatively safe airspace, he recommends exploring propulsion and flight technologies that boost the ranges of unmanned aircraft and their loiter times on station. Such measures would harden tanker fleets against attack or, better yet, obviate them altogether.

Read the whole thing.