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Tanker operations in Europe incorporate effective smart power

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- For NATO, 2011's Operation Unified Protector was a test for partner nations to use their hard-power assets effectively in a coordinated manner. In the process, the cooperation required NATO to look at how it could utilize smart power, a combination of military assets and international partnerships, to complete air refueling missions successfully and efficiently.

Lt. Col. Christopher Bennett, 100th Operations Support Squadron commander, elaborated on how United States air refueling operations in Europe have been impacted by the experiences of OUP.

Earlier this year, the European Tanker Symposium, hosted by 100th Air Refueling Wing, brought together tanker pilots, boom operators and air space experts from all over Europe to discuss the issues and challenges that were presented to them as a community during OUP.

"One of the things we learned was that every nation has caveats," he said of each country's tanker assets and their aircraft receivers. "It's a scheduling nightmare! It's difficult when you've got the guys building the air tasking order and trying to put all those (assets) together."

Bennett is the first to admit the journey will be a long and difficult one, but with proper forums for discussion and the sharing of ideas between all nations that participate in air refueling, the process could be made smoother.

"We're getting better every day," the 100th OSS commander said of the 100th ARW and NATO. "We share ideas, form partnerships, network, make connections and learn from each other."

The KC-135 Stratotankers at RAF Mildenhall conduct air refueling and combat support operations throughout the European and African areas of responsibility, covering more than 20 million square miles. It's this unmatched scope that pushes Team Mildenhall to be the European air refueling center of excellence.

"RAF Mildenhall gives our nation access to the rest of the world; whether it's via the runway or the 15 great tankers that sit out there and refuel that gives us that global ability and that global engagement," he said.

In his eyes, Mildenhall sets the standard for air refueling across the world.
"I think the strength of that credibility comes from our enlisted corps, which is full of well-educated, well-trained, motivated volunteers," he said of the Airmen who keep the jets mission-ready.

Additionally, Bennett praised the efforts of the 100th ARW Airmen and their ability to train, network and conduct missions on an international level. The colonel specifically boasted the success of the formation flight involving a British Royal Air Force L -1011 TriStar and a 100th ARW KC-135. The flight Aug. 16, 2012, featured the first recorded tanker flight between the U.S. Air Force and the RAF.

"The intent is for us to keep doing (this) so when we get to the next OUP instead of saying, 'KC-135's from the U.S. Air Force, you fly and just operate solely with the U.S. Air Force, and RAF you go to your corner and do your thing,'" Bennett explained, "we can say, 'let's marry those two up.'"

The idea, as explained by the Colonel, is somewhat visionary and innovative in the sense that partner-nation tankers now have the potential to fly together in mixed formations and refuel receivers that may or may not even belong to the same country.

The challenges ahead are being identified and addressed, but the idea of smart power is one Team Mildenhall believes in and will continue to promote in order to make their mission that much more effective and efficient.