Tanker-supported fighter jets are able to massively extend their “dwell time” over target areas, allowing them to respond to new target information, pursue multiple target locations on a single attack sortie, and reach otherwise inaccessible areas.
These factors are likely a large reason why the Pentagon is now sending a number of KC-135 Stratotankers to Greece. These tankers could, for instance, enable a land-launched F-35A to double its combat radius. The presence of range-extending tankers means that U.S. and NATO attack aircraft would not need to be positioned further than Germany to operate in Ukrainian airspace. This would make enemy forces operating in Eastern Europe much more vulnerable to U.S. and NATO air attacks, should that somehow become necessary.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby explained on March 8 that the tankers would “provide additional aerial refueling support to the commander of U.S. European Command,” adding that there has been no change to President Biden’s decision against deploying U.S. forces to Ukraine. The tankers are part of a new deployment of 500 U.S. troops aimed at bolstering NATO’s eastern flank. The KC-135s will deploy to Souda Bay, Greece, and the remaining U.S. forces will head to Poland, Germany, and Romania. Kirby said that the troops in Poland and Romania will “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 direct U.S. intervention. Should the United States support any kind of air operation in the region, the presence of tankers would expand the options available to theater commanders.
Another interesting issue now surfacing is the possibility that the United States might “backfill” any fighter jets that Poland may choose to offer to Ukraine. A specific Polish proposal involves a request to give some of its Russian-built aircraft to the United States to deliver to Ukraine. In response to the Polish offer, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, "It is simply not clear to us that there is a substantive rationale for it," adding that the plan "raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance." While the United States has pledged to continue consulting with Poland about supporting Ukraine, Kirby said that the Pentagon does “not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one." Providing fighters to the Ukrainian military may simply involve too much risk for Pentagon and Biden administration planners.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.