Ten NATO air forces attended the 100th Air Refueling Wing European Tanker Symposium, both virtually and in-person, hosted by Royal Air Force Mildenhall May 18 to 21.
Following Operation Unified Protector, the 100th ARW conducted the inaugural symposium in May 2012 with 21 participants, four nations and seven organizations represented during a three-day symposium. The impetus for the event came from the frustration operators had with a lack of tanker-specific training and cooperation amongst European partners during the conflict.
Held annually, except for 2019 and then 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, ETS supports the Secretary of the Air Force’s priority to “Strengthen our alliances” by developing interoperability at the tactical level between NATO air refueling units.
The symposium provided opportunities for cross coordination between air forces, enabling 100th ARW’s strategic goal of conducting international mixed formation air refueling mission with more NATO partners.
Opening comments for the event were given by Maj. Gen. Randall Reed, 3rd Air Force commander, who spoke to the audience via live stream.
“What a fantastic gathering this is; it’s one of the greatest moments I’ve seen in a long time,” said Reed, from his office in Germany. “It always hurts when we cannot get together, and the fact that we’re here now really speaks volumes to the fact that we are professional. It’s amazing how this virus contributed to us not being able to get together, but it absolutely did not stop us from operating! That again is a testament to the professionalism that we have to actually get things done, no matter what.”
With only a single U.S. air refueling wing assigned to the European Command Area of Responsibility and an increasing regularity of coalition operations, it can be expected that complementary US and NATO air refueling missions will be conducted simultaneously.
“Interoperability at the tactical level is critical to successful and safe execution of such operations,” said Capt. Robert Drye, 100th Operations Group plans, programs and strategy. “We definitely identified some hurdles as we’re coming out of COVID and working again with our partners. Everyone was so excited to come out and join us and seeing the connections that were previously established; bringing in our Air Mobility Command partners was completely huge and I don’t think we’ve done that before.”
Mission partners from the Royal Air Force joined U.S. aircrew in person, and others including Germany, France, Canada and Czech Republic attended virtually.
“So far we’ve learned that we all operate to similar rules, but everyone does things slightly differently on their individual airframes,” said Wg Cdr Mike Udall, 101 Squadron officer commanding, RAF Brize Norton. “This sort of event is about understanding the different terminology and standard operating procedures of KC-135s, KC-10s and the A330 multi-role tanker transport, so we can operate together safely in peace time and fight together in war time. It also means we build friendships and social bonds which we know we can rely on in the future.”
He said his team had been looking forward to the elephant walk and formation flight. The elephant walk consisted of a KC-135 Stratotanker, KC-10 Extender and a Royal Air Force-owned A330 Voyager to highlight partner nations working together. During the flight, they formed a mixed formation with a French KC-135 and refueled a French Dassault Rafale. More aircraft were scheduled to join the formation but had to cancel due to bad weather.
“It’s a huge privilege to be invited to operate out of RAF Mildenhall and to fly an interesting and demanding mission with our allies. Being at the European Tanker Symposium and having the opportunity to share information enforces the fact that we are stronger together!” said Udall.
By Karen Abeyasekere
100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs