U.S. Strategic Command

 

Speeches

Aerial Refueling Systems Advisory Group

By Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson | Jacksonville, Fla. | April 19, 2016

(As prepared)

Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, U.S. Strategic (USSTRATCOM) Command Deputy Commander: Thank you, Lt. Gen. (ret.) (John) Sams for that introduction.  I hope my remarks this morning justify that praise.

Good morning, Jacksonville!

Last month, I had the honor and privilege of presenting the Omaha Trophy to the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.  That trophy is presented annually by a civilian Omaha group dedicated to the strategic missions of USSTRATCOM. I’d like to relay to you the same message I gave the 92nd.

Stand by to copy:  November, Kilo, Alpha, Whiskey, Tango, Golf

I realize I am speaking to the converted, but in my career as a bomber pilot and now, deputy to Admiral Haney, at U.S. Strategic Command, I can honestly say that phrase with sincere appreciation for the message.

In doing my research for my talk this morning, I gained an even greater appreciation for that message as I explored the history of aerial refueling. No doubt that nearly everyone here has a deeper knowledge of aerial refueling history, but let me just say I am impressed.

From the Question Mark in 1929, to Sir Alan Cobham’s remarkable developments in the 1930s and 40s, to the KB-29, KB-50, KC-97, KC-135, VC-10, KC-10, TriStar, KC-130, A330MRT - I’m sure I’ve left a few out - of course, the most recent horse in the refueling stable, the KC-46. The skills and professionalism of the tanker forces around the world have always been the reason that airpower can be projected far beyond the horizon.

Lest my naval brethren think I’ve left them out, far from it. The history there is equally impressive. I even managed a few flights in KA-3s and KA-6s in off-loading to receivers and a few in an F-18 taking fuel - same concept, but a very different technique.

Actually, the same can be said for all the probe-and-droguers.  Different strokes for different folks, but as long as we all get time on target as fragged, then the method doesn’t matter.

I looked for one way of capturing the importance of tankers to military aviation and I settled on citing some examples from the Mackay Trophy. In case you don’t know, the Mackay is awarded annually by the National Aeronautic Association for the most meritorious flight of the year by a U.S. Air Force person, persons or organization.  So, yes, it is an Air Force-centric award “ and if you notice my uniform, you’ll understand why I’m ok with that.
If I did the math right, three tanker crews won the award outright, in 1967, 1983, and 1986.  As the usually unsung partner in military aviation, these crews did really special things.  I encourage you to look up these histories. 

To give a short tease, for the 1986 award, a routine Atlantic fighter drag turned into a no-alternates refueling save of one KC-10 saving another KC-10 who was saving a flight of Marine A-4s.  Google “Gold One-One” and be impressed.

Another example of a Mackay winning tanker crew occurred in 1967 in the skies over Vietnam. An Air Force -135 out of Kadena Air Base, Japan, was fragged to work a track supporting Marine strikes in South Vietnam.  As is not an uncommon occurrence during combat operations, fellow aviators found themselves desperately short of fuel coming off target. In this case, the fellow aviators were U.S. Navy crews flying two A-3 Skywarriors modified for probe-and-drogue tanker operations.  The KA-3s, gave up all their gas in order to ensure some of their strikers didn’t have to perform a nylon letdown following a strike in North Vietnam. But, the KA-3s were now well-below bingo.  They made an emergency rendezvous with Maj. John Casteel’s KC-135 and started taking gas, a few minutes at a time, in order to stay airborne. Then two emergency fuel F-8 Crusaders showed up.  The only way everyone could stay airborne was for the KC-135 to refuel the A-3s who in turn sent gas to the F-8s.  A triple refueling - pretty impressive to say the least.

By the way, the KC-135 crew gave up so much of their gas that they were unable to return to base at Kadena and had to divert to Da Nang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam.  Which the great and powerful Oz of the day “ Strategic Air Command “ had forbidden due to the threat of a big tanker sitting on the Da Nang ramp becoming a magnet for guerrilla rockets. The crew lands thinking they are in big trouble.  However, the unusual “Bravo Zulu” sent by the Navy to the Air Force fixed that little problem.

As I said, for a tanker crew to win the Mackay themselves is rare.  What is not rare is the number of other trophy winners who absolutely depended on tanker support in order for them to win. I came up with 20 such examples.  The award has been given since 1912.  In just over one hundred years, a quarter of the wins have been directly related to tankers.  That’s pretty remarkable.

If I can bore you with a war story of my own: In 2001, and again in 2009, I flew B-1s over Afghanistan.  We carried a lot of ordnance and could stay on station a long time.  We also could get from one place to another in a short amount of time.  But, both the long-station time and the hustling to get where needed most was entirely due to the tanker support.

On one particular sortie, we were supporting troops in contact near Herat.  As is typical in any “there I was” story, it’s a pitch black night, massive thunderstorm, and we have got to get gas in order to continue supporting this team which was in a very heavy fight. The tanker did a fantastic job of picking his way through the storm cells, and being in a near 40 degree bank while on the boom the entire time certainly gave me a new flying challenge - but he did it, and, therefore, so did we.

Upon returning to the fight, the joint terminal attack controller on the ground called us to drop “danger close.”  We confirmed his call, got his “roger,” then rained havoc down. That team survived. 

Obviously, I am fired up to be part of the team that helped those guys, but just as important was that ‘yank and bank’ KC-135 who hung in there to make it happen.

The theater air boss called us B-1s his “linebackers” because we were so big, but could move so quickly, and then hit pretty hard when we got to the target. I am also deeply moved, as a bomber pilot, by being associated with anything called “Linebacker.” That, of course, is another campaign that was only possible due to tankers.

Today, this vital, if unsung, necessity continues.  Just last September, another KC-135 saved an F-16 during combat with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant forces. Hooking up to the tanker, the Viper experienced a disconnect after taking only 500 pounds. The pilot found that 80 percent of the gas in his jet was trapped and unusable. The tanker kept him plugged in and gave 500 pound shots all the way home until wheel stop.  Another plane and pilot saved because the tanker was there and provided options.

In fact, today’s tankers continue to set combat records: Last year, the 340th Air Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, 135s at Al Udeid, Qatar, flew 103,000 combat hours “ one-twelfth of the Air Force’s total flying hour program. That’s 688 million pounds of fuel to 64,000 receivers.  When I was there we used to say that on any one day, the 340th had two million pounds of fuel in the air. Simply put, the air war wouldn’t happen without them.

So, I hope I’ve made my point regarding November, Kilo, Alpha, Whiskey, Tango, Golf.

Near and dear to USSTRATCOM’s heart, of course, is the absolute vital necessity of having tankers assigned to our strategic mission. As we've worked hard in the U.S. Air Force to reinvigorate the nuclear enterprise, one of the things I pushed hard for when I was at Air Force Global Strike Command was to properly recognize our nuclear warriors. 

One way we chose to do that was to create the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal, which was approved for award starting in 2014 to Airmen who directly impact the nuclear enterprise. Although many people forget about tankers when we discuss the nuclear triad, I'm proud to say our Air Force got it right by making personnel from tanker units with a nuclear mission eligible to receive this award.

From my perch at USSTRATCOM, I couldn't be prouder of what tankers do for us, our nation and our coalition partners around the world. From supporting strategic bombers if called upon to execute that mission, to our survivable command and control aircraft, to national command authority leadership capabilities to command the military should a strategic crisis occur, the tankers assigned to Task Force 294 are simply ‘go-no go’ items for our plans.

Naturally, nearly everyone thinks of tankers supporting our strategic bombers as they have done since the KC-97s and B-47s of the 1950s.  Today, our B-2s and B-52s must have tanker support to accomplish their mission of daily deterrence and assurance.  Otherwise, the potential for long-range strategic bomber strikes is just not possible.

What many may not know is that the tankers of Task Force 294 directly support the other two legs of our nuclear triad as well.  The highest priority mission assigned 294’s tankers is supporting the National Command Authority (NCA). 

From the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center to the E-6B Airborne Command Post and communications relay aircraft give the president two of his most powerful decision-space tools “ time and options “ to guide the nation to a successful resolution of any potential strategic conflict.

Besides directly supporting the NCA, these jets are survivable communication nodes that can relay Emergency Action Messages to the nuclear forces “ air, land, and sea-based. The triad, and the redundancy built in for communications and operations is vitally important to everyone keeping conflicts below such a strategic level. Those jets can also launch intercontinental ballistic missiles if need be and ensure that our boomers at sea can get the word as well. Thus ensuring that any adversary can’t take out our ability to command and control our forces and knows that we can and will respond overwhelmingly if required.

As such, the addition of the KC-46 is a vital round to the strategic arsenal. For that round to be full-up, however, the strategic role places additional requirements on the jet.  For instance, the additional electromagnetic pulse protection, or EMP, is simply a “must have” in order for the “Pegasus” to perform in that kind of environment should it ever come to pass.  That kind of capability isn’t easy to build in and it isn’t necessarily the cheapest function to engineer, but it is just as important as any other system on the jet. Off-load is great, but if you can’t get the jet off the ground because an EMP fried the wiring, then it kinda defeats the purpose.

Of course, that’s just one aspect of strategic tanker ops that drives requirements that not all may appreciate or need. I can assure you, that everyone in my business does appreciate that requirement, as well as all the others placed on the design of this new jet refueler. 

The assets assigned to Task Force 294 are national assets that, should the worst arise, are needed for national survival.  The price tag for that is never too high.  That’s not necessarily the most politically correct thing to say, but it is a cold, hard fact in today’s dangerous world.

Now due to the uniform I wear, I have concentrated my remarks on U.S. tanker issues. The Arial Refueling Systems Advisory Group (ARSAG), of course, is an international entity, so I tip my hat to the international membership, and most importantly, the various aircrews, maintainers, and support personnel involved for each nation’s capabilities and contribution to furthering the operational art and science of aerial refueling.

I am reminded often about the coalition team put together to meet the air refueling requirements of NATO's Operation Unified Protector in 2011. This effort brought together tanker planners, operators and maintainers from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Turkey and Italy. What this combined team pulled off was nothing short of amazing, to the point where the NATO spokesman referred to air refueling as the "linchpin of the operation."

I am also told that the ARSAG specifically recognized the Operation Unified Protector (OUP) Tanker Planning Team with its 2012 Founders Award, which was clearly well-deserved.

As you discuss important air refueling topics here this week, I would encourage you to remember how teamwork and collaboration produced excellent results in Libya. Use that experience to tackle the issues that face the global tanker community today.  The expertise and perspective of each nation participating in this meeting is important to ensuring that we are prepared to take on another OUP or something even larger in the future.

For more than 25 years, we in this room who represent our nations, have shared resources and capabilities as required in the particular theater to get the job done.

From Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, to Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, to Unified Protector, to, well, insert your operation’s name here, and the international flavor of aerial refueling is self-evident.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today.  I look forward to your questions.