Spec Ops MC-130 Provides Forward Arming And Refueling Point For F-22 Raptors

Special Operations Command and Air Combat Command are getting creative when it comes to poking holes in enemy anti-access and area-denial capabilities

byTyler Rogoway|
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Forward arming and refueling points, better known as FARPs, often conjure images of transport and gunship helicopters and rugged close support jets like the A-10 Warthog or AV-8B Harrier operating from some rough and austere base along (or beyond) the battle lines. At a FARP, aircraft can quickly receive fuel and fresh weapons, and they can do it in a hurry often times without even shutting down their engines. In both Iraq and Afghanistan FARPs were used accelerate the fight by dramatically increasing sortie rates. In some cases, they can also be used as a more "down and dirty" alternative to aerial refueling. Now, with the US facing serious access issues when it comes to fighting against a near-peer state competitor, the need for this tactic is resulting some strange bedfellows. Case in point—the strategic pairing of the MC-130J Commando II special operations tanker and America's most capable fighter, the F-22 Raptor. 

America's fighter aircraft are born addicted to tanker gas. As enemy long-range defenses evolve, their limited combat radius is increasingly putting lumbering jet tankers and other support assets in harms way—a reality we have discussed in great detail before. Not just that, but considering that all nearby basing, as far as 1,500 miles away from the enemy's mainland—and even farther in some cases—is vulnerable to cruise- and especially ballistic missile barrages, the idea that the USAF can just stack hundreds of fighters at their master air bases in a region is a dangerous notion indeed. Instead, during a time of war or of greatly increased tensions, American airpower should be dispersed in smaller numbers throughout a region, occupying austere airstrips on small islands that are not normally considered high-value targets. 

Distributing air combat power throughout a huge theatre like the Pacific, and just getting tactical aircraft from larger bases thousands of miles away, to the target area and back will be no easy task. The USAF is beginning to come to terms with this and is tapping Air Force Special Operations Command for their expertise in setting up a gas station on the ground pretty much anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes.

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This is the job of the MC-130 community, which now flies the MC-130J Commando II. These aircraft are multi-role, being able to interdict at low-level into enemy territory at night to deliver special operations forces, material, or to refuel thirst spec-ops helicopters. They can also take this capability and port it over to the ground, hauling in many thousands of pounds of jet fuel and ground crews that can fuel up aircraft that have landed. And these can be virtually any aircraft, including 5th generation jet fighters.

This is exactly what the 9th Special Operations Squadron and F-22s from Tyndall AFB were practicing at Hurlburt Field this week, using a single MC-130J to "hot pit" refuel a trio of thirsty Raptors. Because the F-22s don't have to shut down their engines during the fueling evolution they can not only be back in the air faster, but they are much less susceptible to breaking while on the ground. The thing about these operations is that theoretically, everything has to be "flown in," but that's not necessarily a bad thing as it gives the enemy little advance notice that the airfield we become active. Another transport aircraft could also bring along ordnance and technicians to re-arm the F-22s before going on their way. This could drastically increase the Raptor's sortie rate and presence near or over enemy territory.Under another variation of this type of exercise, a handful of F-22s could actually sustain operations out of a remote airfield for a finite period of time. Many of these tenets, along with the need to get high-end force multiplying assets into a combat zone as fast as possible, are the impetus behind the "Rapid Raptor" concept that the USAF has been evolving for a few years now. 

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In the end it is all about introducing logistical and basing flexibility into what is really quite an inflexible, infrastructure-heavy support system for America's fighter aircraft. By distributing the USAF's top-of-the-line fighter force in small numbers throughout a region, they are less susceptible to being wiped out on the ground. Additionally, by doing so they threaten the enemy from many more vectors, which spreads the enemy's defenses over a wider area. Additionally, an MC-130J that can fly into airspace at low altitude and setup refueling operations on the ground is less susceptible to enemy targeting than their high-flying jet tanker cousins in many instances. 

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It will be interesting to see the relationship between AFSOC and ACC expand, especially surrounding the "Rapid Raptor" concept, austere operations, as well as a similar concept that is bound to be built around the F-35A. Developing such a set of tactics as quickly as possible could allow for at least a interim solution, even if just a very limited one, to America's short-ranged fighter conundrum and aerial tanker and basing vulnerability woes. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com