Russia is building up forces along its border with Ukraine, and NATO is watching with rising alarm.
The current crisis is the latest in a long line of increasingly aggressive Russian actions against its neighbors. From the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea, NATO allies and partners have faced everything from grey-zone tactics to airborne harassment to outright war, all directed from Moscow.
As long as this pattern continues, NATO must remain vigilant — to protect the independence of its allies and partners, and to deter Putin’s adventurism.
A key element of U.S. deterrence strategy must be to provide NATO air power with sufficient legs — in the form of a modern, capable, interoperable tanker force.
As NATO commander from 2013 to 2016, I appreciated how strategically indispensable our aerial tanker force was to our air combat power in the European theater. It remains so today.
Air superiority a must
A key component to effective deterrence for the United States and its allies and partners is the ability to gain and maintain air superiority. Not since the Korean War has America fought a war without clear air superiority. Without air superiority, NATO land and naval forces will be extremely vulnerable.
The Russian air force remains potent, with aircraft of mixed capabilities, paired with highly dangerous S-400 anti-aircraft missile batteries that create areas where Russia would attempt to deny NATO air access. Deterrence requires demonstrated capability, and NATO’s battlefield posture begins with establishing dominance in the air. But NATO combat aircraft are highly distributed and have vast distances to cover.
Having adequate tanker capability is critical to establishing air superiority. Tankers allow combat aircraft to base farther from the front and to stay on station longer. A 2019 study from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “An Air Force for an Era of Great Power Competition,” estimated NATO would need 183 tankers for a conflict in Europe (not to mention 280 tankers for a conflict in the Indo-Pacific).
NATO raising its tanker game
NATO has been leading an effort to unify tanker capability and interoperability with the myriad aircraft used by NATO member air forces. That effort is known as the Multinational Multi-Role Tanker & Transport Fleet, or MMF for short.
Under the MMF, a group of NATO members have pooled resources to provide themselves with strategic tanker capabilities. The Netherlands and Luxembourg launched the effort in 2016, and in the ensuing years Germany, Norway, Belgium, and the Czech Republic have all joined the effort. Nine Airbus A330 MRTT strategic tankers have been procured thus far.
In addition to aerial refueling, the NATO MRTT aircraft can be configured for a variety of other missions, including transport of personnel or cargo, or aeromedical evacuation. Best of all, the aircraft can quickly fuel all the aircraft in the inventory of MMF participating nations, including the F-35, F-16, Eurofighter, Tornado, Gripen, and C-17, and most aircraft of other NATO members.
US needs new tankers
While America’s NATO allies are blazing new trails in tanker capability and interoperability, the United States remains mired in the past, making do with legacy tankers like the Eisenhower-vintage KC-135, based on the old 707 commercial jetliner, which remain the backbone of the tanker fleet. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have recognized the need to retire aging aircraft and need Congressional support to do so.
At the same time, the U.S. Air Force endures significant delays in delivery of the new KC-46 Pegasus due to quality issues. This crossroads faced by the U.S. Air Force — an aging tanker fleet combined with delays from an unproven design — calls for an alternative solution. That’s why the U.S. Air Force is considering a so-called “Bridge Tanker” program, where the United States would have the option to procure an American-built tanker based upon the proven NATO MRTT design.
The recent Hudson Institute report, “Resilient Aerial Refueling: Safeguarding the US Military’s Global Reach” finds that “the LMXT has greater fuel capacity, which confers more offload capacity and endurance at range. In particular, the LMXT excels at providing large offloads at long ranges.”
The Russian threat is real, and the need urgent. America must provide our warfighters with the most capable aerial tanker that can be put into service as soon as possible, and one that is immediately interoperable with our NATO allies and partners.
Gen. Philip Breedlove is a retired four-star general of the Air Force and a former NATO supreme commander in Europe.
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