Video Above: Would a "No-Fly" Zone Create Massive World War III with Russia?
*Article was published in March and is being republished for viewer interest
Tanker-supported fighter jets are able to massively extend “dwell time” over target areas to respond to new target information and pursue multiple target locations on a single attack sortie, and tankers of course greatly lengthen the combat radius for attack aircraft seeking to reach otherwise inaccessible target areas.
These factors are likely a large reason why the Pentagon is now sending a number of US-based KC-135 Tanker aircraft to Poland and Romania on NATO’s Eastern Flank.
KC-135 Tanker Refueling Aircraft
These tankers could, for instance, enable a land-launched F-35A to double its combat radius of roughly 250 to 300 miles. This makes enemy forces operating in areas of Ukraine, Russia and of course Eastern Europe much more vulnerable to US and NATO air attack, should that somehow become necessary.
Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank is the way Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby explained it, adding that there has been no change to President Biden’s decision that no US forces will fight in Ukraine.
However, the presence of range-extending tankers means more fighter jets, based not only in countries bordering Ukraine such as Poland and Romania but more distant NATO allies such as Germany would not necessarily need to be positioned further forward to have an opportunity to attack and operate in Ukrainian airspace.
“We're sending KC-135 refueling aircraft. They will be deployed to Souda Bay, Greece. I do not know exactly how many aircraft. I do not know where they're coming from. The -- the services are still sourcing this requirement,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters March 8.
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The tankers are part of a new 500-member US deployment in support of assistance to Ukraine.
The KC-135s will arrive at an Air Support Operations Center, which will deploy to Poland and Romania, a Pentagon statement said. Kirby said the air support operation will help provide additional command and control for U.S. European Command flight operations.
The Pentagon has also been very clear that it has not decided to support or enforce a no-fly zone above Ukraine, despite calls from the Ukrainian President and others asking for more help stopping the Russians.
Should the US support any kind of air operations in the region, the presence of tankers would clearly be a mission-multiplying development for theater commanders. There is little question that a US-NATO backed fly zone, to any extent, would be likely to have a decisive and immediate impact, particularly given that the air space above Ukraine is still “contested,” according to the Pentagon.
Yet another interesting question now surfacing is the possibility that the US might “backfill” an amount of fighter jets in Poland should the Eastern European NATO ally choose to offer some of its fighter jets to Ukraine. A specific Polish proposal involves a request to give some of its Russian-built aircraft to the US to deliver to Ukraine.
The Pentagon reportedly said this is not tenable, perhaps due to the extent to which Russia might see this as an escalation worthy of prompting a NATO-Russian conflict.
“We are now in contact with the Polish government. The decision about whether to transfer Polish-owned planes to Ukraine is ultimately one for the Polish government. We will continue consulting with our Allies and partners about our ongoing security assistance to Ukraine. We do not think Poland’s proposal is a tenable one ,” Kirby said.
Providing air operations technologies and technologies to Poland for the specific purpose of supporting the Ukrainian military effort may simply involve too much risk for Pentagon and Biden administration planners to take on given the stakes. However the idea of offering this kind of support is quite likely to have many proponents as well, particularly given the resolve and success now attributed to the Ukrainian force.
“The prospect of fighter jets "at the disposal of the Government of the United States of America" departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance,” Kirby said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.