The Vital Link: The Tanker’s Role in Winning America’s Wars

Document Type

Government Publication

Publication Date



This paper will focus on the unique and vital capabilities of the US Air Force's KC-135 tanker fleet. Specifically, historic and current tanker usage, tanker operational employment, and the capability of today's tanker fleet will be analyzed, with emphasis on force structure and force management. Given that the KC-135 is the USAF's primary air refueling asset and that no planned replacements are due on the flight line for some time, how can the current KC-135 method of employment and force structure support future DoD and coalition operations?

Since its inception in the mid-1950s, the KC-135 has undergone numerous configuration as well as mission changes. One constant throughout has been the reliance of the nation's air power on this critical asset, whether it was sitting alert during the Cold War, or providing mission essential fuel for F-117s en route to Baghdad during the Gulf War.

The success of combat operations in Operation ALLIED FORCE was made possible due to the rapid, massive, and professional employment of the KC-135 in the theater of operations. This success, however, can be attributed more to the actions of the tanker community than to any planned, deliberate inclusion of air refueling assets into the operations plan.

In light of decreasing budgets, aging airframes, increased downtime for maintenance, and an explosion in the operations tempo, this paper proposes a four-pronged methodology addressing tanker vision, organization, training, and employment, as the correction needed to get the KC-135 weapon system back on centerline. This will allow the tanker to effectively aid the Air Force in successfully deterring conflict and if needed, quickly win the nation's future wars.


Air University Library


Air University Press


Air University Library


Maxwell Air Force Base, AL


College of Aeronautics