What is the key to successful air operations? There are many answers but one of the simple ones is gas in your fuel tank. Without it you can’t even start the mission not to mention finishing it.
The more the better. Of course you have to make some compromise as a fighter has to be a fighter and not a flying tanker with rockets and that means a compromise. A clean fighter looks slick. Then you add some tanks, conformal fuel tanks, rockets, bombs and we get a Christmas Tree. But this is the cost of our priority which is the mission. If the situation calls the drop tanks will be thrown away, and the conformal ones don’t hurt that much in combat – they are hardly noticeable for a pilot and can take a lot of G.
If you fly over land fuel is not that important. Probably some sort of an air strip will be here or there and even if you eject – well, a few minutes later your boots will touch the ground. But when you fly over water? And you are a global Super Power? Than this is a different story. You need a lot of fuel to cover the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Gas somehow connects with “eyes”. Your eyes must have “gas” to see the threat and to help asses the best possible way to counter it. That is why there are tankers on aircraft carriers and there are a lot of them. Super Hornets equipped with five tanks serve as tankers for other fighters.
Recently another aircraft has joined the the family of aircraft that can be refueled in the air and this one is very important as these are the eyes of a carrier group. The Northrop Grumman’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye had it’s first flight with air refueling equipment. This solution will give the Navy more time on station and see longer – know more capability.
If we add it to the Pacific pivot it all adds up. The vast ocean areas need great coverage and E-2D with refueling fits nicely in this scheme. Of course there are other aircraft which do the job not to mention the unmanned ones. E-2D is just another puzzle in the bigger picture but this puzzle now has a new skill – it can refuel. At first glance it looks like not a big deal but if we approach it from an operational point of view the limited gas on board the aircraft has limited our actions and now with the refueling system we can cross another border and push further. This is so obvious and valuable that from today’s perspective it is hard to imagine why wasn’t it there since the beginning.
Some say “cash is king” and they are right. I say “gas is king” and I might be also right.
Photo: Northrop Grumman